&By Cherise A. Pollard, PhD

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto: New & Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2020) spans four highly productive decades and features work from Body Moves (1988), Hurdy-Gurdy (1992), Hammerlock (1999), Buffalo Head Solos (2004), Fast Animal (2012), One Turn Round the Sun (2017) and new poems from the manuscript, With No Hat (2020). While the text is marked by loss — the pandemic, the poet’s retirement, his parents’ recent transitions in 2019 and 2020, the speaker’s ruminations about aging and death’s eventuality, America’s dance with late-capitalist demise and the looming collapse of democracy — there’s an abundance of humor, the delights of imagination, the beauty of play, the glory of sports, the sweet promise of Black boy joy, the marvel of a woman’s legs, and the wonders of the kiss.

Seibles’ distinct perspective, the focus of his creative attention, as well as his intention to upset the status quo necessarily means that his work cannot be easily categorized on the levels of content, form, or language. Voodoo Libretto offers its readers formal diversity. There are free verse poems as well as ballads and villanelles. There are short lyric poems and long narrative poems with gorgeous turns and abstract, reflective passages. Language is dynamic in Voodoo Libretto; it is alive in the surprising ways that the poet employs figurative language and rhyme, musicality and word play, invention and highly focused description. In the preface, “Open Letter II,” Seibles makes a strong argument for an attention to craft that disrupts the status quo: “For me, poetry is the place where — if I am not intimidated — I can say the most dangerous, most tender, most mysterious things I know, where I may find the same in the work of other poets … Such crucial speech sustains my hunger to see more than the way it is — more than the way it’s been. I’m talking pure voice, the untamed voice, the voice with no rider, no bit in its mouth” (xxvi-xxvii). On the page, this desire manifests through the way that Seibles plays with language through his invention of new words and his use of vernacular expression.

Of course, themes shift, emerge and return, there are preoccupations that the poet continues to ask and answer. There is being human, and being a human that is Black, and being a human that is Black and male, and being a human that is Black and male who comes of age during the sixties with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and integration shifting the foundation of one’s life. Voodoo Libretto features the work of a poet who has been keenly aware of his cultural, historical, political and social contexts. Born in 1955, the year after the crucial Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a decision that made integration the law of the land, as well as the year a young Black teenager, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, Seibles grows up during the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia. He came of age in the sixties, during a time of cultural upheaval that includes the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968),  and Robert F. Kennedy (1968). In the late sixties, he witnessed cultural change brought forward by the Voting Rights Act (1965), and Roe V. Wade (1973), as well as youth-driven social movements that pushed for this legislation: Black Power Movement, anti-Vietnam War Protests, Women’s Movement and the Sexual Revolution.

A child of the sixties, Seibles is truly oppositional to conservative American politics, and is deeply skeptical of organized religion. His work critiques capitalism, American militarism, political corruption, The Cold War, Reaganism, The Bushes (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), Desert Storm and the perpetual War on Terrorism that followed 9/11. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, readers will notice a sharpening political critique — at first it may simply be a quick mention of republicans in the poem “The Apple Cake” (Seibles 88), or a slight reference to white people who may not be as trustworthy as one imagines in “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131),  but then one notes a shift in later work to extensive critiques of conservative politics that develops into an outright damnation of Trumpism and MAGA politics as in “MAGA Hat III Strategy ” (283).  In “Not Nearly Enough” (285). the speaker asks a rather provocative question: “Tell me, how did we let these fuckheads run the world / off the road?!” (lines 34-35). In a post-January 6th 2022 society, it’s not clear that anyone has an answer that makes logical sense, but Seibles’ work asks the necessary questions.

Voodoo Libretto charts the transformation of a poet who becomes more comfortable with the fact that he must say what needs to be said to wake up America. Seibles explores the ways in which these historical events, cultural shifts, and politics affect the way the poet sees himself and his world. It is also work that is shaped by a poet with a unique perspective who does not shy away from introspection and imagination. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, we see the direct impact that these historical movements had on young Seibles’ life. Lost childhood innocence is a strong theme in this collection. There are several poems such as “Trying for Fire” (Seibles 11), and “Terry Moore” (163), that focus on his childhood, particularly his experience of being one of three Black fourth grade boys who integrated an elementary school in Philadelphia. His relatively happy, sheltered childhood changes abruptly.  In “The Word 1964-1981” (11), the speaker visits the school, wonders about the Herculean task placed on a boy’s small shoulders:

In Philadelphia
I went back to the school
we integrated. The bunch of us
had no idea how big a deal it was —
our parents behind us saying
Be good now. Stay outta trouble.
But we were fourth-graders

and the teachers didn’t want us.
What could we do? (lines 1-9)

Integrating that school changed the community, and the little boys who grew to be men under the pressure of institutionalized racism. Often, we encounter grand integration narratives haloed by notions of heroism in the face of blatant racist actions. Here, we see a different version of that lived experience in the northeast, where institutionalized racism emerged, some might say, in a more subtle dynamic. Seibles gives us no clear-cut battles, but shows us something different in his depiction of Black boys who “have no idea how big a deal it was” (line 4) who are forced to go to a school where “the teachers didn’t want us” (line 9). The psychological, cultural and social impact of these actions was not anticipated. Those boys and their families were not prepared for the trauma either they or their community would endure. His visit to the old school grounds is bittersweet. He is reminded of some joyful memories of playing sports that seems to balance the trauma. There seems to be hope, or at least distraction from pain: “but the field is still there” (line 21). But the trauma is not mediated for long. The poem closes with “On some / of the side doors you can / still find the word Nigger” (lines 24-26) The trace of racism remains in the structure of the building, in the institution’s landscape.

In “The Hilt, Second Session” (Seibles 209) the speaker’s imagination, spurred by childhood memories, returns to the playground.  This long poem moves back and forth across the page, like “The see-saw, I remember — ” (209). The speaker revisits a memory of playing with his brother behind their church, wearing his “fake tie clipped to / my stiff, white shirt” (209). This scene rouses the speaker’s anxieties. He is not sure who he is anymore, or what he has become:

Having ushered you into the who-knows-what that waited in the world,
having seen your face before that first hard glint hacked your eyes,

 when they look at you now, do your parents find anything familiar? (209)

Here, the speaker understands that the experiences that he has encountered have forged him into a man who seems to be so different from his boyhood self. At this point in his life, some thirty years after the publication of Body Moves (Seibles 1988), the speaker tries to take some measure of himself. Who is he, if he is not recognizable to himself, or those who knew him, raised him? Reeling in self-doubt, the speaker seems unable to gather himself, to articulate the meaning of his life.  He sees himself, accomplishing things, participating in the world, but feels distanced:

getting
a sandwich
starting the car
calling somebody
calling back —
bizzy. (210)

Throughout the collection, in the later books, one notices that Seibles invents and employs the word “bizzy” to highlight the ways that the Protestant work ethic that fuels American capitalism stands diametrically opposed to any meaningful existence. He realizes that he has gone through the motions, in all of the busy-ness of daily life, he is traumatized: “the way you walk — some sign / of a lifelong shove: your mind / a shy animal, force-fed, skinned” (Seibles 210) As if in a daze, the speaker thinks,

The self is real, right? — this who-you-are, this
soft-wheel: these chronic recollections –

Does it feel like a trick? This thing  

you’ve become: some dream re-running
in your veins, what you believe, (210)

In the section that follows, we realize that he is experiencing a trauma in the aftermath of the police shooting of Tamir Rice on a playground in Cleveland.

In the video

before the
police came
Tamir Rice
was a kid

playing a –
lone in a
park near
the gazebo. (211)

In the context of Seibles’ body of work, one of the themes of which is childhood nostalgia and the reckoning of masculinity, this section of the poem resonates — here is a Black man taking stock not only of his boyhood and lost innocence, but grieving for a boy who loses much more than innocence. He remembers, “I used to do that. / I’d have my football with me, a water gun in my pocket, / maybe some Sugar Babies” (211).  The speaker wonders:

do you
think that
boy had
any idea

his story
was al-
ready
written?” (211).

The speaker’s reflection on Tamir Rice’s death echoes his own trauma in “The Word 1964 -1981” (Seibles 11) when he says that he and his friends “had no idea what a big deal it was” (line 4) when they integrated their elementary school. There is a sweetness in his boyhood memories, playing on the playground, playing with Legos in the basement, watching cartoons that does not match the terror that lurks on the margins of his life — a terror that visited Tamir Rice on the playground.

In Voodoo Libretto, play is kaleidoscopic. There are so many ways that Seibles indulges in serious play — child’s play, sports, word play, imagination, dreamtime and flirtation. For Seibles, play pushes the boundaries of our expectations, challenges us to reconsider our beliefs. From self-proclaimed class clown to adult trickster, Seibles’ imagination invites the reader into investigative distraction. In several poems, playing football and basketball is a way for the speaker to connect with his buddies, and a pathway to masculinity. In “Nothing But Football” (Seibles 22), the speaker remembers the joy, bordering on religious ecstasy, that playing football with his friends brought into his youth:

trying to stop us. They couldn’t stop us:
you stutter-dipped. I snake-slipped, anything
to spin-shimmy away clean as light,
slick as sweat, holy thieves in a forest of moving trees (lines 16-19).

The language is alive here with the slippery consonance of “s.” The hyphenated words give us the sense of collision on the field — mimics play action.

It is also important to note the crucial aspect of fantasy and escapism that play brings into the boys’ lives. In the shadow of racism, and their parents’ watchful eye, play gives the speaker and his friends a way to be. This play is transformative, it opens up possibilities for their future — for the men they will become. Later, in “Trying for Fire” (31), Seibles admits that his NFL dreams did not come true, “I never did play pro-football, / never got to do my mad-horse, / mountain goat, happy-wolf dance / for the blaring fans at the Astrodome,” (32), but the dream makes real world survival possible; it gives the speaker and his boys something to be hopeful for beyond the rules and restrictions of their daily lives.

Ever the inventive poet, the form of the villanelle becomes a playground for Seibles. Working within its constraints, he plays with rhyme and meter in ways that lead to surprises for the reader. Several pop culture references such as Oprah, CNN, Beatles lyrics, Wonder Bread, Sponge Bob, Yoda, zombies, and the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” are either the focus or make special appearances in some of his villanelles. In “Extra Bright Blues Villanelle” (Seibles 289), the speaker humorously reflects on the idea that others might not consider him to be very smart; it is ironic because the entire poem stays true to the villanelle form and references Dylan Thomas’ classic work, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The combination of the literary and popular cultural references as well as the poet’s experimentation with variations and imaginative stretches that facilitate the rhyme scheme result in a villanelle that demonstrates the speaker’s brilliance. The repeated lines are found in the first stanza:

Sometimes I guess I don’t seem extra bright  (A)
Nobody tol’ me not to stand behind that horse (B)
Always thought the moon had its own light. (A) (lines 1-3)

In a villanelle, the first and third lines repeat as the end lines of each of the five tercets and are the couplet at the end of the last quatrain of the poem. Seibles uses slant rhyme for the A and B rhymes: for the A rhyme, “bright,” he brings in “light,” “fight,“ ”night,” “sight,” and the slant rhyme “life.” For the B rhyme, “horse,” he substitutes “remorse,” “force,” “of course,” and “off course,” as well as slant rhymes: “for,” “door,” and “more.” The speaker’s riffing on various words and their meanings makes the poem humorous: “Really don’ know if I’ll ever get right / Been charting the stars like a Martian off course. / Sometimes they don’t think that I’m extra bright” (lines 16-18). The space theme shifts into the speaker thinking of himself as a lost Martian. By the end of the poem, the speaker binds all of the logical threads together:

You ride with no hands when you ride with no bike
Where’s Yoda at  when you’re needin the Force

Sometimes I bet I don’t seem extra bright
But, I’m pretty damn sure the moon had its own light” (lines 22-26).

Here, the speaker brings Star Wars references into his argument — with “Yoda” and “the Force”. These references ground the poem in popular culture, in effect, reinvigorating the form for contemporary audiences. These often delightful substitutions also highlight the limitations of form — that in order to stay within its bounds, Seibles must stretch the argument conceptually.

Seibles tackles racial and political issues with humor, too. In “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131), Tooter Turtle tells Mister Wizard that he wants “to be black in America” (131). Mr. Wizard cautions against this desire, tells Tooter,

But, Tutah, look: the republicans are on a rampage,
white people, in general, seem like dangerous playmates
and the black community is riddled with  with
self-inflicted wounds! (131)

But, Tooter is drawn in by Black culture. He believes that circumstances must be improving. He says, “Well, gee, Mister Wizard, times have changed. / It might be a little rough, but I’ll be down / with the brothaz — they’ll show me the ropes” (131). Tootah wants to be Black because: “Black people are bold and resilient” (131). Well, the incredulous Mr. Wizard grants Tooter’s wish with this spell:

Two parts laugh and three parts pain
Cutting lash and hard-won pain

Thumpin bass and rumble drums
Dr. King and drive-by guns

Skin of dark and spark of eye
Sade’s grace and Pippin’s glide

Purple Heart and might of back
Time for Tutor, to be BLACK! (131-132)

After ten minutes of being Black man in America, the transformed Tooter Turtle yells, “HELP, MISTER WIZARD!!!” (132). This poem is funny because it reveals the disconnect between the romance of blackness — the culture, music, the narrative of survival against the odds — verses the reality of oppression and violence. It is one thing to see it as an outsider, it is quite another to experience the crushing effects of institutional racism.

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto is a seminal text. In it, we see the power of Black interiority — the matter of Black lives — clearly. Seibles’ work chronicles the intricacies of being and becoming a Black man in the late twentieth century and the ways that masculinity shifts as the poet’s life circumstances change. One could easily say that Seibles’ influence is seen throughout contemporary African American poetry — the humor, the risk taking, the performance, the interiority — have opened up space for early twenty-first century poets to experiment in their work. Voodoo Libretto is an important text for scholars of contemporary American poetry who seek a unique perspective on craft, word play, invention, reflections on being, representations of Black boyhood and masculinity, the psychological impact of racism and integration, as well as American cultural politics and popular culture. Seibles’ voice adds an important resonance to the chorus of African American poets speaking to the diversity of Black experience.

Works Cited

Seibles, Tim. Voodoo Libretto: New &Selected Poems. Etruscan Press, 2020.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


cap photo 071622Cherise A. Pollard, Ph.D., is Professor of English and Director of the Poetry Center at West Chester University of PA. where she teaches African American Literature, Creative Writing and  Composition/Rhetoric.  She earned her PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. A 2012 NEH Fellow who participated in the Summer Institute in Contemporary African American Literature, Pollard has published several articles on contemporary black women poets and novelists such as Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sapphire, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Lucille Clifton.  A scholar who focuses on Popular Culture, African American Popular Fiction, the African American Women’s Historical Novel, and African American Poetry, her critical essays have appeared in journals and edited anthologies including Theorizing Ethnicity and Nationality in the Chick Lit Genre (edited by Erin Hurt), Black Female Sexualities (edited by Joanne Braxton and Trimiko Melancon) and Forecast. She has also published Reader’s Guides for two of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novels, Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter.

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By Laura Vrana, PhD

&

Over the recent holidays, I found myself struck by a poet-scholar’s query on what many of us — in a tone suffused with affection and/or disdainful disregard — dub “Poetry twitter.” While compiling a list of forms invented by Black poets, she found herself centering products of male writers, so she was seeking more invented by women. Enthusiastic replies poured in, citing (among others): Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “gigan,” Tara Betts’s “4-1-1,” Allison’s Joseph’s “sweetelle,” Nicole Sealey’s “obverse,” and Ashley Lumpkin’s “disciple.” Too, poets and scholars used this thread to engage generatively about how to define an invented form, suggesting Claudia Rankine’s “American lyric,” or Patricia Smith’s “triple sestina,” or works “undoing traditional forms” like Tiana Clark’s “broken sestinas,” could qualify. I wondered: what, and who, do those of us who research and teach Black poetics include and foreground when considering innovation?

This query was particularly on my mind since I was about to begin writing a piece on Amanda Johnston, so I was struck when Johnston herself chimed in on this very back-and-forth unobtrusively mentioning her “genesis”. She describes the form as “comprised of seven poems. Five individual poems create a sixth prose poem, and italicized words create the final seventh poem when read independently as a visible erasure.” Johnston’s tone, putting herself forth for consideration yet doing so quietly and briefly, encapsulates the simultaneous humility and well-warranted braggadocio with which Black women poets today innovatively “make poetic culture in their own images” (Leonard 27). I mean “braggadocio” not as a critique. Instead, I hope it and this piece will celebrate Johnston, even as I suggest that innovative precursors paved the way for her triumphs. Johnston recognizes this lineage; readers should also situate her work against this backdrop to fully understand her contributions to contemporary African American poetics.

One of Johnston’s most vital ancestors came up recurrently in that thread: Gwendolyn Brooks. One scholar posited that Brooks’s “sonnet-ballad” and “anniad” are invented forms; others highlighted that Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel” could never have emerged without Brooks. In these meditations, I want to argue the same of Johnston: a boldly innovative versifier herself whose works come into sharper relief when seen as partially descended from Brooks.

Like Brooks, Johnston is equally adept on page and stage. She has won honors for slam and performance work in venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café and has published in journals like Callaloo and Poetry, along with two chapbooks (Guap and Lock and Key) and her full-length collection Another Way To Say Enter. Many “slammers” like Johnston engage in textual innovation encouraged in part by their training in MFA programs: Johnston earned her degree at the University of Southern Maine. Yet these innovations are equally indebted to Brooks’s model of poetic invention. In addition, she and Brooks share extraordinary accomplishments as poets and tireless advocates for their peers. Johnston devotes herself to opening doors for Black authors: she has served as Board President of Cave Canem, co-founded the reading series / social media campaign #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and founded Torch Literary Arts to promote Black women’s writing. Through these labors, Johnston, like her foremother, links poetry to social change.

More should be said about Johnston’s labors on behalf of Black writers as well as about her performance work. But I will focus here on her written texts, particularly how they derive inspiration from Brooks in treating centrally the variegated subject of Black motherhood. Countless Black poets have penned riffs on their foremother generally and especially on her works on this topic (including Robin Coste Lewis’s “the mothers”). However, Johnston’s entire oeuvre centers motherhood in modes topically and formally inspired by Brooks’s “the mother” (1945), locating her as a modern poet of Black motherhood. Johnston’s body of work addresses how the experience of shepherding a young life into and through a world that subjects Black children to additional forms of precarity yields internal conflict and heightened raging at social (in)justices.

Her speaker(s) return(s) repeatedly to dwelling on her/their mother(s). The ars poetica “With Apologies to the Poem” from Lock & Key, for instance, apostrophizes her verse with sardonic audacity a lá Brooks (or her foremother domestic poet extraordinaire Lucille Clifton). It opens: “you complicated flutter of sound / broken and bent meaning / all the best,” then continues in ironically self-aggrandizing self-effacement: “I can’t // connect the sky or birds / to my mother // I tried // as you did” (8). These lines via paralipsis do connect “sky” and “birds” to the speaker’s “mother,” insinuating that the poet-speaker finds this character, and, I argue, this theme meaningfully unavoidable.

On top of this returning to one’s own mother, Johnston’s full-length Another Way to Say Enter reflects a pervasive preoccupation with the speaker(s) as mother. Numerous poems overtly address being a mother, from the haunting narrative in “When My Daughter Wasn’t Assaulted,” to “What We Dare Not Say” positing that “unconditional / motherhood / could be driving / your young into the sea” (27). Even in poems not specifically addressing motherhood, images like describing the domestic task of peeling potatoes through a simile equating the vegetables to “a newborn baby’s head” (23) raise the specter of this role.

I will unpack just two of these motherhood poems: “My Beloved Be Loved,” and “We Named You Mercy.” The former revises Lock & Key’s “My Beloveds” and appears in Enter with the epigraph “after Toni Morrison,” situating it as allusion to Morrison’s novel and embracing Morrison’s influence on her representions of Black motherhood. This poem stunningly lyricizes Sethe’s decision to perform matricide, inhabiting this mother’s consciousness and rendering her supposedly monstrous choice explicable in just six couplets. But its treatment of the so-called choices involved in Black motherhood also has roots in Brooks’s “the mother,” especially in how skillfully Johnston extracts maximal ironic effect and societal commentary from small-scale devices like punctuation and diction.

For instance, Johnston expands Brooks’s devotion to exploring exactly what the action of “love” — a verb she features prominently thrice in the anaphoric, haunting final stanza of “the mother” — means to Black mothers. To do so, she excludes the comma that should appear for clarity in her title between the vocative “My Beloved” and the imperative. This absence (like Brooks’s brilliant double-edged meanings of “in my deliberateness I was not deliberate”) provokes readers to recall that the former, often-saccharine endearment “Beloved,” is etymologically equivalent to the latter passive construction, “Be Loved” and that true maternal love involves action, not mere words. This immediate juxtaposition also highlights that white supremacy attempts to leave Black mothers powerless. But against such passivity, the piece centers verbs: “I grab,” “I know,” and “I will hand.” Thus, the poem emphasizes that Black motherhood always centers maternal care enacted in action — even if that mandates matricide or abortion, and even if others view these women warranting confinement in the poem’s “cage[s].”

Johnston’s “We Named You Mercy” extends this Brooks-inspired work of depicting mothering complexly via minute, deliberate formal details. “Mercy” is written “after Gwendolyn Brooks” and transports the “mother,” discussing abortion into our century. Despite the homage, a stark contrast differentiates Brooks’s piece from Johnston’s. Readers can infer that Brooks’s 1945 speaker likely obtained the abortion(s) before and without revealing her pregnancy/ies to others, to retain some modicum of control, perhaps thanks to physical or socioeconomic necessity that others might devalue. Johnston’s speaker instead induced abortion out of medical necessity; it remains unclear if only the child’s health or also the speaker’s was imperiled. In addition, this would-be mother inhabits different domestic circumstances and shares the experience with a partner: clearly, they both longed for and “love[d]” this unborn and so only chose abortion to express “cold mercy.” In light of these conditions, Johnston’s speaker’s emotions become even more double-edged than those of the speaker of Brooks’s poem. Both poets depict the children in ghostly terms, but Johnston tonally describes the child in beautiful natural imagery and alliteration, its “toes” “small petals,” its “closed eyes” “pulps of possibility” (5).

Juxtaposing her work with Brooks’s emphasizes that Black women may, regardless of circumstances, view abortion as hardly wholly their choice and as a result experience conflicting emotions. That Brooks’s speaker endures her loss in silence (except the outlet of this poem) becomes pronounced in her mournful final repetition of the singular first-person: “I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All.” While Johnston’s speaker has recourse to first-person plural, society nonetheless still veritably forbids speaking publicly about miscarriage, medically-induced abortion, and concomitant mourning; this remains somewhat true even if others beyond one’s domestic orbit knew of the pregnancy, as may be the case for Johnston’s speaker. Such taboos make it difficult for Black women to process guilt, shame, or self-doubt.

Yet “We Named You Mercy” violates these taboos in content and via aesthetics used. Johnston’s tools for representing her speaker’s sense of self-blame and culpability mirror Brooks’s: both center compound neologisms and pose unanswerable rhetorical questions. Johnston’s neologisms like Brooks’s create an overall indeterminate mood. Her first-person speaker declares: “I saw your face once and, yes, I did / kiss your cheeks and cry for your sweet not- / quite nose, not-quite lips” (5). Brooks’s “sucking-thumb” and “gobbling mother-eye” condense memorably the haunting experience of envisioning the unlived lives of (a) child(ren) aborted; Johnston’s adjectival “would-be” and “not-quite” and nouns “almost-children” and “half-wing” operate in parallel to summon the children into pseudo-embodied form. Like those ghostly phantasms, these linguistic neologisms might seem mere fabrications to those around the speaker; this liminality parallels how others denying her anguish validity might increase its keen ache. Johnston’s speaker also blames herself in the same form as does Brooks—unanswered interrogatives. “the mother” poses two haunting questions: “Though why should I whine, / Whine that the crime was other than mine?” and “oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?” Johnston expands this to five. Her speaker queries early on: “Would I get / another chance to see you if I held the knife? Cold, the sterile / the taker’s tools” (5). Near poem’s end, these questions accumulate in an accelerating, frenetic compilation: “Did you see me? The one with / empty arms stretching to embrace a / a [sic] silhouette of you? … / Or / did I make that up to keep you with / me a little longer? Did you stay until the no / I set upon your body untangled itself from sprigs of hair / and released you from the softness that tethered you to the / love in our cold mercy?” (5). In these rapid-fire queries, the speaker questions her complicity and sanity.

She also blames herself when she imbues speech with the capability to enact the abortion, describing it as a performative utterance, the “no / I set upon your body.” Thus the “mercy” extended feels tepidly “cold” indeed, directed at the unborn fetus and thereby denied the mother herself. It is fitting that Johnston also implicitly evokes Morrison here: her final image of “almost milk that did not swell, but was light as air” (16) recalls Sethe’s last days at Sweet Home, when her “swollen” breasts tortuously subject her to abuse by white enslavers and serve as material reminder of the child sent ahead whom she is desperate to follow. Johnston’s poetic invocation of milk-laden breasts are an absent presence, “airy,” yet real — like that “ghost” of possibility provoked by holding the lifeless child.

Too, Morrison often ruminates on “mercy” ideologically. Her A Mercy (2008) describes a mother begging a white man whom she judges likely to treat her daughter humanely to “take” her into enslavement, an attempt to protect her from their present master’s rapacious sexual abuse. To her, his accepting “was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human” (195). Farah Jasmine Griffin glosses this passage:

For the mother, the white man offers a gift of mercy, but is the mercy an act granted to the slave child by the man Vaark, or one granted to the white man to whom she is given? Is the act of mercy his ability to see Florens as a child and not only a piece of property over whom he has power? Or is it God’s mercy that the enslaved mother sees Vaark as a human being who might do right by her child and not as a monster who would cause her great harm? All she knows of white men would lead her to see them, to believe them, to be monstrous and evil. Yet, she sees this one as a human being, capable of kindness (28).

We might similarly ask in Johnston’s poem: who requests mercy — child, mother, father, poet? — of whom — child, mother, father, poet, readers? If even trading in humans can seem merciful depending on the relative situation, then (Johnston suggests) the choice to prioritize an unborn child’s quality of life over the mother’s well-being qualifies, too, as an act of mercy. The unborn “Mercy” embodies such grace to her mother — Griffin also asks: “Who can be more deserving of mercy than a child” (29) — even as this speaker serves the God-like role of extending her offspring mercy. The body of the poem only incorporates its key word “mercy” once: in the phrase “our cold mercy” that thus carries tragically key dual meaning. In context sans capitalization, it primarily describes the parents’ tortured decision. But read in light of the title, this phrase also evokes corporeally encountering the corpse of the child.

As parallels between these two poems evince, tortuous cycles persist for twenty-first-century Black mothers denied equal access to resources and exposed disproportionately to environmental and institutional hazards that make them and their children precariously vulnerable to negative health outcomes. “We Named You Mercy” is not only a potent document of personal trauma. It is also a rallying cry to rectify such circumstances, or at least to grant Black women platforms to express losses and to advocate implicitly for reproductive justice.

For the ability to hold the child, to write this verse, and to lyrically name the child does proffer something to this despondent speaker. That the name is “Mercy,” however, ultimately encapsulates the tragedy of the loss and the parents’ feelings. Johnston’s speaker experiences the “cold” comfort of sharing her burden with a partner and writing in a somewhat more accepting era. Yet it is undeniable that Brooks’s formal and thematic innovations, as well as her meditations on this under-discussed facet of Black motherhood made a pathway for Johnston to follow in her own work.

Before closing, it seems worth thinking about the choice on the part of this poet of motherhood to dub her created form the “genesis.” This audaciously positions her as fertile and god-like, authoring creation and the text representing it. This mirrors Nikki Giovanni’s tone in “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” when she declares: “I turned myself into myself and was jesus.” Both poets make Black women, so often societally abjected, godly. And rightly so, for Johnston’s invented genesis is itself a wildly creative hybrid form, demonstrating her formidable talents and demanding fresh reading strategies. She formats the five separate pieces, spread across multiple pages, as individual columns for independent reading. But they also together, read left-to-right and up-to-down across the columnar divisions, create a sixth longer poem. Finally, she invents a new sub-genre, the “visible erasure,” by asking readers to identify the seventh poem hidden in plain sight. Each columnar poem contains italicized phrases; assembling these left to right across the two-page spread comprises a seventh poem. But locating this invisible (yet hyper-visible) seventh poem asks readers to do the impossible: ignore the roman typeface text they have already read. Those words haunt this seventh piece interpretatively. Reading such work — let alone innovating such a form and writing effectively therein — certainly requires and displays capacious, generative poetic thinking.

Thus, Black women poets (Johnston among them) indubitably deserve treatment as creators of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American verse. That Twitter thread ultimately helped me continue dwelling on key broader matters in twenty-first-century African American poetics. Many assert that now that Patricia Smith won the Pulitzer and “slammers” (with other types of Black poets long held in abeyance by the academy and literary establishment) are being increasingly recognized, these poets now exercise full freedom. Although “gatekeepers” initially “pushed” slam and its “artists to the margins or jettisoned it” (Johnson and Blacksher 170), such institutions have begun to “recognize the literary merits of slam” and “bring slam and spoken word poets” into their legitimizing spaces (Johnson Killing 2). Keith Leonard recently asserted that twenty-first-century Black poets can wholly “create as they please” (29). Amanda Johnston’s career gives me (qualified) hope that he is correct, or soon could be. For she is to some degree recognized by the establishment on stage and page, and collectives like Cave Canem and the Affrilachian Poets help her reach broader audiences and craft her own platforms.

However, reading her as poet of Black motherhood and emphasizing her innovation remains in order. As Brooks’s brilliance is kept at the fore through the tireless labors propagated by the Furious Flower conferences and center, among other efforts, so I am delighted to have this opportunity to bring Johnston’s work before readers and position her as a modern daughter of Gwendolyn Brooks in these pages, where we with the writers tend and foster African American poetry.

 

Works Cited

Johnson, Javon. Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2017. Print.

— and Anthony Blacksher. “Give Me Poems and Give Me Death On the End of Slam (?).” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 169–79. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. New York: Norton, 2021. Print.

Johnston, Amanda. “About.” Amanda Johnston. https://www.amandajohnston.com/about. Web. Accessed 1 Feb. 2022. Electronic.

Leonard, Keith. “New Black Aesthetics: Post-Civil Rights African American Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 17–30. Print.

@nadia870. “Hey poetry Twitter, what forms do you know of that were invented by Black women poets? As I begin forming a list of forms created by African American poets, I realize that none of the folks I’ve found so far are women. Please help!” Twitter, 29 Dec. 2021, 10:51 a.m., https://twitter.com/nadia870/status/1476234444625358851.


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Vrana headshot

Laura Vrana is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Alabama and a proud alumna of Penn State, where she earned her Ph.D. in English. She researches 20th-century and contemporary Black poetics, and her publications have appeared or are forthcoming in outlets including MELUS, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, College Literature, and Obsidian and the edited collections Some Other Blues: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka, Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, and two volumes of the Cambridge African American Literature in Transition series.

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By Leslie Wingard, PhD

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A.Van Jordan’s sardonic wordplay and technical prowess are often elided by critics and interviewers who focus solely on racial content and representation. Dorothy J. Wang argues in the preface of her book Thinking Its Presence (Stanford UP, 2015, XXII) that aesthetic forms are inseparable from social, political, and historical contexts in the writing and reception of all poetry. She questions the tendency of critics and academics alike to occlude the role of race in their discussions of the American poetic tradition and casts a harsh light on the double standard they apply in reading poems by poets who are racial minorities. Wang argues that critics should read minority poetry with the same attention to language and form that they bring to their analyses of writing by canonical white poets. Jordan’s close attention to form is consistent across his poetic production: two chapbooks, The Homesteader (Unicorn Press, 2013) and I Want To See My Skirt (Unicorn Press, 2021) and the collections, The Cineaste: Poems (Norton, 2013), Quantum Lyrics (Norton, 2007), M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A (Norton, 2005), and Rise (Tia Chucha, 2001). His commitment to the Western literary traditions in the forms of sestinas, sonnets, and the epic are met by far more modern and experimental techniques including his borrowing of cinematic narrative structures and persona poems in The Cineaste and M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. This is all the more reason it is necessary for teachers to focus on Jordan’s artful form when introducing his poetry in their classrooms.

A vivid example of Jordan’s formal abilities is in his most recent chapbook, I Want To See My Skirt (2021), which is the result of collaboration across history and geography between the poet and two additional artists. Jordan sees collaboration as a type of translation in that, “you have to figure out the language of the other artist as you bring your language together with theirs” (Unicorn Press, 2021). He sees the poems in I Want To See My Skirt as mainly sestinas that work like a tailor’s weave in a textile to describe the texts of contemporary Black multimedia artist Cauleen Smith and the late great Malian photographer Malick Sidibe (1935-2016). Sidibé’s photographs are stylized celebrations of Malian men and women in the era of independence from French colonial rule. Jordan, Smith, and Sidibe’s genres are so well-coordinated in I Want To See My Skirt that the intricacies of form are highlighted first and foremost in the chapbook: they “come together to make a new tapestry, something agile enough to hold the past and the present close to our hearts” (3). This chapbook about the growing pains of youth also includes repeated words like “body” and descriptions of a plethora of clothes that will attract students of different ages, genders, and backgrounds; in other words, they will relate to it via its form.

In “Roka’s Parents,” Jordan imagines the parents of a young girl translating for each other their distinct yet coterminous languages for loving their child. I argue that within the six stanzas of six unrhyming lines the repetition of the words “(not a) problem” and “skirt” are especially noteworthy. I Want To See My Skirt is also the title of a 2006 film by Cauleen Smith in which Smith and Jordan play Roka’s parents. Both the poem and film center on the four-year-old daughter. Her beauty, vulnerability, and character are depicted through photographs of her in a beloved skirt from the United States. She will learn that her own body and Black skin are representations made by others as much as by herself. The father in the poem tells the mother, “Don’t forget, I too understand/the ways of the flesh and the power of the body,” and the mother responds, “Let’s not make such a big deal over a skirt./When I put it on her, it was for fun: not a problem.” The father retorts, “Yes, my dear, trust me, it’s not a problem./But a father must show concern for his daughter’s body./There’s no reason why I should skirt/around this issue: men simply want knowledge/of what a woman has to offer beneath her clothes./Always. And this both of you must understand” (9). I would ask my undergraduate students to pay attention to how, exactly, Jordan builds momentum and understanding by utilizing just the two words that stand-out most to me: “(not a) problem” and “skirt.” Indeed, Roka’s budding knowledge about her race and gender is important in this poem, and I know that my students will see that, but Jordan helps us to realize that race, gender, and form are not opposed but instead working together in the piece. 

Juan Wynn, who studied A. Van Jordan’s work in an undergraduate class I taught at the College of Wooster, sees the form of Jordan’s work as a model for his own writing just as much if not more than its content. He recently reflected on reading the poetry. Wynn bumped into the renowned poet at a bookstore in his hometown Newark, New Jersey in 2016.  “I actually had a copy of Quantum Lyrics that I had been annotating,” Wynn said, “so it was incredible that he signed it after we talked about MFA programs and writing that day.”  Quantum Lyrics is ambitious in its perplexing investigation of the human condition via jazz and R&B motifs and actual encounters with racists, the stories of comic book heroes and Albert Einstein, and the minutiae of equations and other data in the world of physics. The volume is powerful because of its form: it moves back and forth between the language of music and the language of science to question which, if any, can penetrate to the core of peoples’ experiences. Because of its complex structure, Wynn “…often returns to Quantum Lyrics. Although it is a full-length collection, the first section in particular is a vision about how to start a collection really strong, meaning in an impressionable way and showcasing formal variety[.]”

Jordan visited my Wooster classes in person and via Zoom on multiple occasions, which allowed an opportunity for them to discuss both form and content with the poet himself.  My students noted that the word “mother” comes up many times in Jordan’s poems “Orientation: Wittenberg University, 1983” and “Que Sera Sera” from the collection Rise, and that Jordan’s poetic form signals that the mother could be his own or someone else’s or everybody’s. He expressed to them after they studied “Orientation” that he wanted to make the Wittenberg University orientation experience easier on his mom, who was jolted by seeing her son and other first-generation students wholly unprepared for undergraduate life.  This culture and class shock resonated with many of my Wooster students, and it is crucial to discuss the ways in which, among other formal strategies, Jordan’s choices of when to use end-stops vs. enjambment create that feeling. One detailed example that we discussed was the additional question mark removed but still felt after the word “color” in the following lines:  But is there really a color / for ignorance when it hurts self? / I can see that I’m not ready. Astute students noted that they learned in college-level literature, Africana Studies, and sociology classes that race is a social construction, and that the enjambment here is key in showing that the speaker, just out of high school, may not yet have been able to put academic language to how their younger mind was actually querying about race and its overall effects. To put it another way, my students think the enjambment here perfectly exhibits how quickly a high schooler, after college orientation and some college courses, may move from feeling pain, or worse, shame around racist acts to questioning race itself and blaming society for inequalities that stem from it. Furthermore, they observed, the end-stop after the word “ready” indicates that this first-generation speaker feels entirely cut off from the worlds of pre-knowledge to which other students at the orientation already had access.  Some readers also thought this poem’s setting in the classroom to be one meant to relay that there exists a power battle between students and their elders (“I decide what to do before she even gives…”). While a valid analysis, Jordan’s aims concern the ethics of pedagogy: he sees the classroom as a space meant for the equal exchange of ideas from all gathered.  His mother’s sense of displacement, her disorientation by race and class at the undergraduate orientation, push the poem’s speaker to envision a disruption of long-established exclusion and power imbalances. The poem’s speaker boldly asserts that they should be “setting out” to always “make a mockery of (any divisions drawn in) class.” Likewise, Van Jordan’s form choices play with readers—to prove that society needs lessons on how not to be ruled by race, class, and other related biases, Jordan tricks them in to reading the word “class” as both social division and a course for instruction at the same time. 

In my Literary Theory class, we did a unit on Jacques Derrida, deconstruction, and the panopticon. To focus on form, the class viewed Tom Tykwer’s innovative German action film Run Lola Run (1998) as a text about life as a text: relatedly, Derrida’s famous line, “everything is a text,” reminded them that deconstruction theory relies on all things being open to multiple interpretations. We then read Jordan’s poem on the film and found that its form also simulated an unfinished puzzle, lacking only the final pieces of the reader’s/viewer’s hopes, doubts, and judgements. One student was curious about what inspired Jordan to focus on Manni and Lola’s relationship and was also interested in Jordan’s choices in poetic structure. While it is not the exact form of an English sonnet, it seemed to them to be loosely modeled after one with the separated stanzas and rhyming couplet at the end. Jordan responded that, “‘Run Lola Run’ is written as a terza rima. I wanted a form that had a system of repetition in it, but a repetition that also showed a relationship between moments that came before the present moment. I close on a couplet to show both closure and for it to represent the couple in the film.” He wanted the poem to end on a note of relationship advice and for that advice to clue into what the cycles in the film mean and to the meaning of the film as a whole. According to Jordan: “When I saw this film in the theaters in the late 90s, I just saw it as an adrenaline rush of an adventure with a brilliant structure. When I saw it again with some distance, I was able to focus on the relationship, which is really what dictates the structure of the film. The one lesson I walk away from the film with is that relationships take work, but working at them pays off. I wish I had picked up on that piece of advice sooner.” So the poet links poetic form and content to cinematic form and content and makes these connections clear to the students.

Jordan’s M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A is about 13-year-old MacNolia Cox who was the first Black winner of the Akron District Spelling Bee in 1936. Cox was thought to have lost in the final round of national competition because the Southern white judges cheated her. Jordan deploys film’s narrative conventions to tell this story of Black struggle and achievement, all the while engaging with and expanding on poetic form. Many of the poem titles come from screenplay headings, are called movie reviews, and have film directions such as “Interior/Exterior” in them. My students working in small groups in class are especially responsive to the unique form of this collection about the spelling bee. For instance, in my Religion in Black Film and Literature class, time and time again when we watch the movie The Green Pastures, and then read the poem “Green Pastures” from Jordan’s collection:  students are taken aback by this 1936 film directed by two white men which depicts stereotyped stories from the Bible as visualized by Black characters. Then, they recall that it was released during the same year that MacNolia Cox won the Bee in Akron. The personified Jim Crow who “works on the long track in hell” in Jordan’s “Green Pastures” poem resonates with them. Similarly, the way in which Jordan utilizes wordplay to compare imagined signs now reading “Negroes, Too” on water fountains in this film’s south to the strands of pearls middle-aged women wear stands out to my students. They note the irony: these imaginary signs adorning the water fountains came much too late in history, and so, as Jordan’s clever form choice highlights, they have lost any and all opportunity to hang “elegantly”:  they are forever cruel and distasteful (92).

College and university-level faculty and students would benefit from robust teaching tools and spaces which focus on not only Black poetry’s content but also its innovative form. After all, the form guides the purpose and tone of a poem. When the message and form fit together, the product is poetry that is truly powerful. Even more powerful is watching a process unfold while teaching about the form of A. Van Jordan’s texts in particular alongside film, visual art, literary theory, or music: students generate something new and we instructors see them find their way by mapping interdisciplinarity.

Works Cited

I Want to See my Skirt. Directed by Cauleen Smith, in collaboration with poet A. Van Jordan, 2006.

Jordan, A. Van. The Cineaste: Poems, New York: Norton, 2013. 

Jordan, A. Van. “College of Wooster African American Literature Student Questions.” Received by A. Van Jordan. November 15, 2020. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie.

Jordan, A. Van. “College of Wooster Literary Theory and Research Methods Student Questions.” Received by A. Van Jordan. February 20, 2019. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie. 

Jordan, A. Van. The Homesteader, Greensboro, Unicorn Press, 2013.

Jordan, A. Van.  M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A, New York: Norton, 2004. 

Jordan, A. Van. Quantum Lyrics, New York: Norton, 2007.

Jordan, A. Van. Rise, Symar, CA: Tia Chucha, 2001.

Jordan, A. Van and Cauleen Smith.  I Want to See my Skirt, Greensboro, Unicorn Press, 2021.

“Our Life in Poetry:  New Poets/New Poetics.”  The Philoctetes Center.  Event Program.  29 January 2008.  http://philoctetes.org/documents/New%20Poets.pdf

Rowell, Charles H. “The Poem is Smarter than the Poet: An Interview with A. Van Jordan.” Callaloo.  Volume 27, Number 4, Fall 2004. 908-919.

Tykwer, Tom. Lola Rennt: Run Lola Run. Germany: X-Filme Creative Pool Productions, 1989.

Wang, Dorothy J.  Thinking its Presence:  Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry.  Stanford UP, 2015. xxii.

Wynn, Juan. “A. Van Jordan’s Poetry.” Received by Juan Wynn, January 1, 2022. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie.


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Leslie E. Wingard earned her BA in English from Spelman College and her PhD in English from UCLA. She is Associate Professor and Chair of English at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Her articles have been published by Religion and LiteratureReligion and the ArtsSouth: A Scholarly JournalChristianity & Literature, and American Quarterly. Her book under contract at the University of Georgia Press is entitled The Acts and Arts of Faith: Representation and Black Christianity. Her primary research areas include African American literature, Black visual culture, and women’s and gender studies. She has been a research fellow at Haverford College, Williams College, Princeton University, and Princeton Theological Seminary. 

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By Roger Reeves, PhD

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At first, I thought to trace an aesthetic through-line in Cyrus Cassells’ poems, from The Mud Actor, his first book of poems, a National Poetry Series winner published in 1981, to More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (2020), his most recent collection, a sequential poem broken up into twelve sections which was written while in silence / silent retreat at the Benedictine Brother at the Christ in the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I thought I might trace Cassells’ shifting use of nouns and verbs or his deployment and performance of queerness or Blackness since his writing life and books span a vast historical period that have seen seismic shifts in the way that Black folks and queer folks have been treated and incorporated into the mythology and narrative of America. The Mud Actor appears at the beginning of the Reagan years, in a post- Jim Crow America, that will see the rise of the HIV / AIDS epidemic in queer communities that the Reagan administration will belligerently, nonchalantly address. Cassells writes his latest book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, at the height of a neo-fascist turn in right-wing, mainstream American politics—this fascistic turn ushered in by the Trump administration’s xenophobia, which Cassells deftly alludes to in the first poem of More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, “Winter Abbey with Venus Rising,” when the speaker locates himself “Far from the deriding republic” and ‘mint-new Herod decrees’ (14). I thought to trace or overlay palimpsest-like these concerns, conflicts, and histories overtop Cassells’ work to see how he either explicitly or implicitly contends with the shifting nation and his place or the place of the poem in it. Or, more so to see how these moments of contestation, rupture, and crises shaped the poetics. But, you know what they say about best-laid plans. And, I, somewhat, sabotaged myself by reading the poems in reverse chronological order, beginning with most recent work and moving backwards—starting with More Than Watchmen at Daybreak moving to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo (2018) and so on. However, whenever I moved on to the next books—The Crossed-Out Swastika (2012), Beautiful Signor (1997)—I couldn’t shake a bit of Latin that appeared in the second poem of the sequence of More Than Watchman at Daybreak, “Accepting the Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage.” The poem begins with a command to the listener (reader) which also might serve as an admonishment to the speaker as well: “Listen, out of love and goodwill,…” (15). And you do, you listen, but what’s surprising is that after learning of the speaker’s small room he’s been gifted, a Latin phrase flutters down almost like the spirit of God descending like a gauze from the ceiling above: “….Benedictus qui venit / In nomine domini,…” (15). Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, I believe, is the translation. Please forgive my Latin or lack thereof. The phrase is a canticle from the New Testament of the Bible—Luke, Chapter 1, verse 68. But more than a hymn or chant from a Benedictine worship song, it is also a prevailing poetics or aesthetic concern of Cassells’ poems. But I would extend that snatch of Latin to say: Benedictus qui venit nominee domini…and the Body.

Cassells comes to the poem to not only write in the name of the Lord, in the name of the celestial, in the name of the divine at “the cusp of inchoate vermillion,” at “the sacramental banks with pallid embroideries of ice,” but also, as the two aforementioned quotes gesture towards, Cassells comes to write devotionally with impeccable precision of the body, the body “far from the deriding republic” and the body mocked by the same republic for ‘resembling a ‘red-boned’ angel in a hammock, one who finds himself falling in love with another boy with ‘tea-brown fingers’ (4). These devotional poems, which are always in proximity and conversation with “Herod’s decrees,” historicize and reframe a vast array of abuses—from national abuses enacted by governments and political regimes to the ongoing struggle against homophobia and queer antagonism in Black communities—through an attention to what is circumscribing or surrounding them—the stars, the sun, the beauty, the “deep-down plenty” in “the midst of bondage” (16). Cassells’ poems remind me of that moment in Cornelius Eady poem “Gratitude” where the speaker proclaims “I am brick in a house / that is being built / around your house”—the “your house” being the master’s, the nation’s, the oppressor’s house (143). Cassells is not only a brick in a house, but he, himself, is building a house to surround and neutralize various disasters and catastrophes as if to say beauty exists here, too. You cannot take this from me, from us, you old “conniving Caesars of Cotton” and “Greed-Swayed Kings of Sugar.” Cassells subverts, pierces, and disrupts that which might annihilate life through a devotion to that which faces extermination, liquidation—those who are historically and continually remanded to the liminal position of eradication. You and me.

Cassells expresses this poetics, this devotion in the Black-est of ways—the hyphen. Or, maybe I should make that assertion differently, with a little less essentialism. Revision: I’ve come to trace Cassells’ devotion to life in the middle of ongoing catastrophe through the hyphen and hyphenated phrases like “star-scouting / soul-of-a-nighthawk leap—….,” what Cassells calls “the bull’s eye of the beguiling / compound words of Gullah” (11, 25). In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston calls these sorts of constructions double-descriptors, action-words that dramatize Black life through metaphoricity, performance, “the will to adorn” this drab English language that was thrust upon Black folks because of our captivity. In Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, Jennifer Devere Brody advances Hurston’s claims about the funkiness of the hyphen by interrogating American grammarians and their sacrosanct grammar manuals with their call for unification of words—a sort of treatise against the hyphen—as an extension of U.S. hegemony and liberal forms of consolidating power, politics, patriotism, and American nationalist ideology. Hyphens, in their visibility, highlight an incommensurability, an unresolved in-between-ness that performs the impossible while yet not healing or correcting the impossibility.

Cassells’ use of the hyphenated adjectives / double-descriptors, particularly in the title poem to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo and More Than Watchman at Daybreak, dramatize several impossibilities / incommensurables at once—the incommensurability of English to account for African Diasporic (Gullah) culture ways, bodies, sensuality, and life; the impossibility of queerness to reside in parochial, Protestant houses. While this might be considered ‘a will to adorn’ (to call back to Hurston), I think we must expand what we think of adornment. It is not merely ornamentation—superfluous and unneeded. Extra. Rather, the will to adorn is the will to critique, an improvising that opens up possibilities inside of a standard, an orthodoxy, a cage. Cassells’ use of double-descriptors opens up the possibility of reaching for a known thing, something like a Black life, behind and beyond the captor’s language. For instance, in “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” Cassells begins with a meditation (an ode that is also an interrogation) of the Gullah word for daybreak, dawn, the new sun—dayclean, which itself we can understand as a type of double descriptor, action-word even without a hyphen. With its connotations of awakening in a new day after some conflict or contestation, clear of some dirt from the day before, the word dayclean acts as a presiding sentiment, an ontological space of fugitivity, a moment of possibility and renewal in the ongoing disaster of anti-Blackness and homophobia. Dayclean, its always-arriving, acts as a bulwark against annihilation. However, its multiplicity, its standing-in-for-so-many-things, makes the term quite slippery. And makes meditating upon dayclean, writing lyrically about it, even more difficult. This difficulty pushes Cassells to dramatize the unsayable nature of the word:

Dayclean’s the Gullah word
for the gala sun, the looked-for

melon, meticulous,
up-and-coming,….(3)

It’s as if Cassells wants more out of the English, wants English to be able to accurately state multiples states of being at the same time. Cassells wants both a past (as evinced in the term “looked-for”) and present and future (as evinced in the term “up-and-coming”). He wants a state of being / a tense that exists an ongoing-ness.  A state of being that can express not-yet-arrived-but-known, which is the voicing of the incommensurable. However, this state, this tense does not exist so Cassells dramatically and poetically enacts it through the winding sentence over the time and space of two couplets and the hyphenated adjectives.

These hyphenated adjectives do not make one such appearance in the first section of the poem and then fall away. Instead, they are the engine that drives the poem. In section II of “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” these double descriptors / hyphenated adjectives appear on every other line of the first three stanzas—“glove-yellow” to describe the morning, “crow-carried” to describe mussels, “priest-gentle” to describe the pines. The phrases act performatively. Here I mean the term performatively in the J.L. Austin sense of the term—they make something happen through their vocalizing. Something like movement, action. It’s as if Cassells calls the morning, the mussels, the pines into being, into a present or ongoing-ness. These phrases provide not only an impeccable precision to the visual and emotional register to Cassells’ poems, but they also act as a blessing—a benediction—in the form of praise. “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo” praises the margins and the marginal of (Black) life—the Gullah people of the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia sea islands, the Mount Pleasant aunties, “okra-cooking grannies,” “shredded barbecue / in a Winn-Dixie plastic bucket,” “Marquetta’s stone-ground grits,” Augustus, the speaker’s boyhood crush (11-13). Cassells’ speaker even loves Augustus’ ‘gumption…to share // news of [their] pistol-hot love with [his] pew-strict, / disowning father….” (13). Cassells bring his mouth and ear to that which is castigated for its transgressions and transgressiveness, for its impossibility and incommensurability, and praises its difference—queer love, queer language.

This playing in the non-normativity of language and love simultaneously, through the use of the hyphen resists the unifying narrative of nationalism, resists a monolithic construction of Blackness. Locating American Blackness in the Gullah, a group of Black folks on the territorial margins of the United States, and in queer love in youth (youth being another position of political marginality), Cassells makes a poetic statement about the complicated-ness of nation, belonging, and community; he locates nation and Blackness not in its unities but in its moments of contestation and difference, in its ruptures—at the hyphen. There, Blackness becomes itself—its many varied and multiple selves, at its margins—dayclean. Divine.

It’s irony for sure, but it’s the divine irony of a poet who understands that it is being devoted to difference—to the banal and the celestial—that brings about the divine. In other words, Cassells’ attention to that which we might call God and that which we might call the flesh, the body, is a type of divinity, one that understands the secular, the corporal, the sensual, the sexual, the political as connected to that which historically and theologically we have thought as beyond the body, pure of its stink and wants. And Cassells performs this praising, this attention, this devotion through the difficulty of the incommensurable. Through impossible. And provides for us, the reader, a path through the shouting.

 

Works Cited

Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

Cassells, Cyrus. The Mud Actor. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1982.

Beautiful Signor. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.

–. The Crossed-Out Swastika. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

–. The Gospel According to Wild Indigo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2018.

–. More Than Watchman at Daybreak. LaFayette, New York: Nine Mile Books, 2020.

Eady, Cornelius. Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” http://www.ypsilonediteur.com/images/documents/Zora_Charateristics.pdf.

 


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Roger Reeves by Beowulf Sheehan
© Beowulf Sheehan

 

Roger Reeves first book of poems, King Me, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, among others. He’s won awards and fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, The Whiting Foundation, and Princeton University. This fall and spring, he will be fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. His next book of poems, Best Barbarian, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in February / March of 2022.

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By Jameela Dallis, PhD

“Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little
pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to be Colored Me”

“we are all the poems that will not be quiet / we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives”—
—Jaki Shelton Green, “No Poetry”

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Jaki Shelton Green sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife. These words are litany, invocation, invitation, and view into the poetic realm of Jaki Shelton Green—a poet who believes poems should be physical and immersive and that “writing is about listening.” She is a poet for whom “joy is resistance” and writing is “full of light.”[1] And it’s within such light that we form, as Audre Lorde says, “ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized” (24). Shelton Green’s poems hold, reflect, remember, and project experiences across a range of identities, ways of being, and possibilities of being.[2] Shelton Green is North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate—the third woman and first African American to have been appointed to the role—and she is one of my dearest friends.

March 2018, I knew she was someone I should know. In fact, a mutual friend said so. Our first meeting, following a Natasha Trethewey lecture at the Nasher Museum of Art, was brief. I was instantly enamored with Shelton Green’s style—her signature vermillion round glasses (à la Iris Apfel), her bespoke jewelry, her full head of big curls. She was approachable, asked me about myself, and mentioned a few presses to have on my radar. Later that year, fresh with the grief of a lover’s passing, and the uneasy elation of a new Visiting Assistant Professor position, I received my first assignment for a regional independent newspaper, Indy Week. Editor Brian Howe was familiar with my scholarly background and trusted me to interview Shelton Green in her new role as North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate. I wasn’t very familiar with Shelton Green’s work, but I googled everything I could and read as many excerpts, interviews, and poems that I could find online. Shelton Green and I met on a hot Sunday morning in September. What was meant to be an hour-long interview stretched for at least two. She graciously answered my questions. I took copious notes. We shared insights off the record and become fast friends. She invited me to her home for dinner a week later.

This essay is part love letter, part introduction to and meditation on Shelton Green’s poetry and vision. Here, I’ll spend time with selected poems from the span of Shelton Green’s career. Many of her early poems explore the richness and complexity of love in its myriad forms. But, even so, her earlier collections remind us that “history has never left us” and her later poems reveal a matured romantic love and the palpable, inscrutable grief of losing one’s child. As a documentary poet, Shelton Green’s poetry bears witness to individual, familial, and communal histories and shows us her art—her ability to “create a language for what she wants to hold without sending people running.”[3] Yet, Shelton Green uses her figurative oyster knife to agitate and open us to the beauty of reading, listening to, and being moved to act by the narratives, the images, the feelings, and the people we encounter in her poems. For poetry, as Audre Lorde says, “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action” (25).

Dead on Arrival and conjure blues

From her debut, Shelton Green has moved freely from the personal to the historical and maintains a sense of intimacy and agency throughout. In the preface to the first edition of Dead on Arrival (1977), poet and reviewer Lance Jeffers writes, “The winged and delicate imagery of Jaki Shelton . . . may be a harbinger of poetic greatness. . . . Should this idiosyncratic development continue, she will move, I believe, into a circle of greatness” (vii). The book sold out and a second edition with new poems sold out again in 1983. The collection holds poems of understated sensuality as in “shadow,” which begins with “those white shoulders have never / locked / around / black thighs” (1-4). While “and in my old days—“ alludes to the last king of Dahomey opening with “agoliagbo! / agoliagbo!” and the speaker warns, “do not try to / renew me / I am fluid,” asserting her freedom and, perhaps, slipping from the grasp of French colonists (3-5).[4] 

The poem, “the moon is a rapist,” is bold for its time and operates on several levels as it’s hard to ignore that Roe v. Wade was decided only four years before the arrival of Dead on Arrival. The poem’s speaker asks the moon, “why do you kneel there peeing in my window / you kneeling there upon my earth / impregnating the night crawlers with glow,” and Shelton Green’s ability to anthropomorphize the celestial body into a night creeper, an exhibitionist Peeping Tom in three lines is simply astounding (1-3). The moon’s “soft yellowness penetrates” the speaker’s walls and the speaker says,

                        you entered as you were
                        yellow streams of pee
                        leaving traces upon the bed
                        rapist you are
                        beating your rays into my buttocks (6-10)

The violence of the “soft rapist” moon is the caress of its glow, its yellow urine-colored light that is only a reflection of the sun that “knocks loudly upon [the speaker’s] door” (14, 15). We see the female speaker, nude in her bed, bathed in violent light that not only impregnates the night crawlers but her as well. These “moon babies i shall abort / moon babies come out of my birth pouch” she says (12). Though we know people with uteruses have been aborting fetuses for millennia, the landmark decision provided unprecedented agency and access to safe abortions. Though the moon is a rapist, the speaker isn’t bound to birth its children.

In conjure blues (1996), Shelton Green writes several poems for her children, paints intimate moments between lovers, and conjures people living through historical events both tragic and illuminating—the essence of the Blues. Read these poems aloud. Feel their rhythm. They are meant to be experienced. One poem, “insult,” brings Carrie Mae Weems’s iconic 1990 Kitchen Table Series to mind with a woman sitting “with elbows at attention” waiting on breakfast (12). The poem begins, “bacon is burning again / overdue notices form a multicolored border / around the dresser mirror” (1-3). The speaker admires her woodworker lover’s “rich redbrown” back (5) and then “bacon is smoking the kitchen / why does he not cook it in the oven” (8-9). With those lines, we see the smoky kitchen—the bacon is doing the action—and the speaker’s question carries with it the closeness of a well-lived-in romance. We imagine the repeated suggestion that he cook the bacon in the oven for this very reason. There’s a relatability and maybe we think of someone in our lives who never takes our advice and yet we love them madly anyway. In my head, I hear Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne” as the woman sucks on “mandarin orange slices” (13) and the final lines of the poem feel like a nod to and revision of “the moon is a rapist”:

                        it is a yellow bedroom
                        the egg yolk is running
                        splashes on this thigh
                        she wants to start there
                        licking the spill from his
                        hardness
                        only he’d push her aside and never understand
                        that she doesn’t want to fuck
                        just enjoy breakfast (19-27)

Here the yellow is the color of the bedroom and yolk The woman is the agent of desire, but her desire isn’t for sex, but rather for the sensual experience of the viscous yolk. The “insult” is both experience and implied. There’s the implied insult of cooking advice ignored and the implied insult of being denied (undesired) intercourse. That Shelton Green paints such a scene in less than 30 lines is a testament to her poetic brilliance.

Rememory and Remembering
In several poetry collections, Shelton Green works with the concept of rememory and takes on the task of remembering historical events, putting flesh back on the bones of lost peoples, people who’ve been silenced, and people whose lives have been devalued. Toni Morrison describes rememory as “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324). One such poem in conjure blues is “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” The September 3, 1991 fire injured 55 and killed 25 workers trapped behind locked fire doors. Many believed racism and poor oversight contributed to the high death toll because during the processing plant’s 11 years of operation, there had never been a safety inspection. The plant never reopened.[5] The poem conjures both the Blues and those killed in the fire:

                        there is still a sadness stuck in my mouth
                        that makes me wanna suck
                        on something that i have not tasted
                        for so long
                        what does it mean to not be able to remember
                        your mama’s breast
                        bronze nipples, rising, falling,
                        but the blues remember
                        so without being able to explain
                        i feel this song surging inside of me
                        grinning, shouting
                        i feel this song my every question,
                        my why for, my how come,
                       my what did i do to be so black and blue (1-14)

The poem moves from the present moment—that moment the speaker longs to remember their mother’s breast, a return to innocence that also acknowledges their untimely death due to racist, classist, and anti-worker practices. Shelton Green’s poem begins and ends with the same image of the mother’s bronze nipple and moves readers and listeners through a dirge that remembers the victims of this preventable tragedy.

In Feeding the Light (2014) “an eclipse of skin” is an ekphrastic poem remembering a lynching.[6] The poem tells the larger story of an enslaved man, William, whose owner accuses William of touching his wife’s apron. The poem’s entire sixth stanza is a runaway slave reward advertisement. With phrases such as “He is a / shiny black, lean built with large limbs, long fingers, he is hung / like a race horse” and “He has usually small feet for a nigga and / missing the toe next to this great toe on his left foot,” we are reminded of the dehumanization enslaved people endured and the paradox of being deemed both white men’s property and a sexual threat to white women (22-25). William is hanged for the offense. In the poem’s seventh stanza, a new speaker says, “masa hung my william” (28) and continues:

                        had him hung from the chinaberry tree
                        same tree my william plant for masa
                        when william was just a child
                        masa make me and my baby liza watch
                        from the kitchen
                        liza my child and masa child too (25-34)

Shelton Green captures the cruel hypocrisy of a slaveowner who rapes and impregnates an enslaved woman and lynches an enslaved man who we learn in stanza five was coerced by the slaveowner’s wife. The same wife callously complains “bout how william blood gone kill / the grass” (43-44). Yet, this passage recalls the ending of Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, “Sweat,” wherein protagonist Delia Jones waits under a chinaberry tree for her abusive husband Sykes to die from a rattlesnake bite. Here the mention of the tree may suggest that retribution for William’s death is on the horizon.[7]

The poem continues:

                        masa had him hung
                        passed out cigars and cups of peach brandy 
                        made me suck him off in the kitchen
                        in front of aunt sue
                        making apple fritters (45-49)

The rapist slaveowner’s cruelty is endless reminding readers and listeners that in a society where people own other people, there is no room for sexual agency or consent but, alas, there is sometimes space for retribution. In the ninth stanza, Aunt Sue speaks to the apples, sugar, and fire—she conjures—and nature “remember[s] in all the languages / of storm” (56-58). By the eleventh stanza, the sky is black: “black like masa blood up yonder / black like missus scalp / rolling off the bed” (60-62).

In “an eclipse of skin,” Shelton Green remembers the lynched man by empowering the Black women who loved and survived him. When Aunt Sue speaks to the ingredients, she invokes the power of conjure—the power to speak a desired outcome into being. The women transmute their pain, their mistreatment, the violence done to their bodies into speech, into memory, into magic. Ultimately, the power of Black women’s voices, our imaginations, our dreams, and our poems “give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare” (Lorde 27).

Shelton Green’s most recent poetry collection, i want to undie you (2017), is a lament, a space to hold the inscrutable sorrow for her daughter, Imani Muya Shelton Green, who died in June 2009. The first five lines of the title poem, “i want to undie you,” are full of both searching and deep knowing:

                       i have come to this new place whose trees have no medicine
                       barren ground that has never tasted a thimble of blood
                       where birds fly backwards and sky is afraid of falling
                       it is here that i say goodbye to my woman-child who is remembering her
                       true
                       name and searching for the river where her story was born (1-5)

Poetry becomes a space where Shelton Green can reconnect with her daughter while connecting us with a most private form of grieving. Shelton Green’s language gestures toward what can’t be fully comprehended but has still been experienced. It is this paradox of feeling that lends this collection its heartbreaking beauty.

In “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother,” the speaker lists all the ways she wants her daughter to undie—from “i want the dust of you unscattered” and “i want the grief of you un-grieved” to “i want the verb or you un-verbed” and “un-diagnose the diagnosis of you” (1, 3-4, 8, 12). It is hard to find the language to describe this poem. It is at once a poem of negation and desire, of remembering and remembering. In the final poem of this collection, “now,” the speaker says “i write books. store grief upside down on the top pantry shelf where seldom / used wedding gifts rest beside oversized serving platters the antique tea service / and those tacky fake porcelain teacups i can’t bear to toss” (1-3). The grief here is palpable, but it is also shelveable. Yet, it remains. Grief inhabits an interstitial space resting between the treasured and what we hold on to because we feel we must. Grief is like that. It’s the evidence that we loved someone—that we still remember and remember someone through poetry, conversations, and dreams.

In conversation with oyster knives

Here I return to the beginning and bring together Hurston and Shelton Green once more. The Hurston epigraph, from her renowned 1928 essay, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” embodies Hurston’s unconventional and anachronistic approach to race and identity—in the sense that she refused to be confined by her contemporaries. Hurston’s full passage is worth reproducing here:

But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (153)

Hurston refuses to embrace a defeatist point of view or be easily categorized. She sees the world as full of potential and is bent on experiencing as much of it as possible. Arguably, Shelton Green inherited a similar spirit from her grandmother who she describes as “a wild woman” who “was always present in a very large way” and was the “first horticulturist” Shelton Green had known (Shockley 121). Her grandmother both “loved living things” and “the texture of nice things” and could be “very feminine” and “girly” (121-22). This juxtaposition, this “openness” taught Shelton Green “not to fear things that are different” and to be a “risk-taker” and, she says, “To stand outside of who you are. To widen your lens of how you view your world and how you invite other people’s perspectives into that world” (122).

“No Poetry,” on The River Speaks of Thirst is one space where I find Shelton Green and Hurston in conversation and where I’ll end this essay.[8] Shelton Green’s poem begins:

                       no poetry for these hands
                       no poetry for these trees
                       no poetry for these men
                       no poetry for the time you chase
                       no poetry for the dreams that hold you hostage
                       no poetry for the truth brewing inside crooked hallways, crooked courtrooms, crooked jail houses
                       no poetry for the fog covering the blood
                       no poetry for the noose flapping against the wind’s tongue

The speaker continues declaring “no poetry” for the wrongs Blacks have known past and present and then shifts, and cracks the poem open into something different. The speaker declares:

                      we are all the poems lurking in the shadows
                      we are all the poems that cannot be forced into cages
                      we are all the poems holding up the sky
                      we are all the poems that will no longer sacrifice our seeds to a toxic wind
                      we are all the poems rattling the ghost bones of the Middle Passage
                      we are all the poems pissing on bloodstained flags

The shift is significant. The poem moves from all the spaces either bereft of or unworthy of poetry to a collective chorus of living poems, potentially dangerous poems for those who attempt to cage or silence the speakers. Then:

                      we are all the poems that will not be quiet
                      we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives

And finally, “we are all the poems we need to start a revolution.” And that’s what Jaki Shelton Green’s poetry is always reaching toward—a revolution of feeling, of thought, and of we acknowledge and reckon with our history, our ancestry, ourselves, and our futures.


Notes:
In the second epigraph and final section of this essay, I cite lines from Shelton Green’s 2020 poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirst. Note that although the album has been released, not all of the album’s poems have been published. Thus, line breaks are approximate and I have done my best to cite the work faithfully and have consulted with Shelton Green when necessary about language only.

I have capitalized Black when referring to people of African descent. I have not changed the capitalization of black in quoted material.


Works Cited:
Green, Jaki Shelton. “an eclipse of skin.” Feeding the Light, Jacar Press, 2014, pp. 18-21.

—. “and in my old days—.“ Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 27.
—. “insult.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 44-45.
—. ”i want to undie you.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “No Poetry.” The River Speaks of Thirst, Soul City Sounds, 2020.
—. “now.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “shadow.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 47.
—. “the moon is a rapist.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 10.
—. “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 34-37.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” The World Tomorrow, May 1928, reprinted in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive Paperback, CUNY Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 152-55.
—. “Sweat.” Fire!! 1926, reprinted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1914-1945, 9th ed, W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 517-25.

Jeffers, Lance. Preface to the first edition. Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, vii.

Morrison, Toni. “Rememory.” The Source of Self-Regard. Knoph, 2019, pp. 322-25.

Shockley, Evie. “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green.” Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010), pp. 121-28.

[1] Green made several remarks about her approach to writing on during a talkbalk I facilitated March 14, 2021 after the second priemere of the theatrical production of The River Speaks of Thirst, directed by Kristi V. Johnson and produced by The Justice Theater Project.  

[2] Here I use “remember” in the style of Toni Morrison’s “rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324).

[3] Quotations are from Green’s remarks on March 14, 2021. See endnote 1 above.

[4] Read one version of the last king of Dahomey’s story at Face2Face Africa.

[5] Read more about the Hamlet chicken plant fire on Wikipedia.

[6] Green says the poem “was in a collaborative exhibit called Lullaby Plantation. I offered poetic responses to the images. This poem responds to a photograph of a lynching” in a March 2, 2014 comment published on the website When Women Waken.

[7] Zora Neale Hurston is one of the several influences and beleoved writers Greens mentions in the interview “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green” by Evie Shockley published in Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010) pp. 121-128.

[8] On The River Speaks of Thirst, “No Poetry” is performed by Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s first Poet Laureate, CJ Suitt—a queer, Black person.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


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Jameela F. Dallis, PhD is a writer and scholar who has been teaching, leading conversations, and facilitating workshops for more than a decade. A former Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Elon University and UNC-Greensboro, Jameela has worked with several museums and arts organizations such as the North Carolina Museum of Art, Ackland Art Museum, and Nasher Museum of Art. Her poems, interviews, arts journalism, and literary scholarship have appeared in several publications including Honey LiteraryThoughts on the Power of Goodness, Our State, Decoded: A Duke Performances JournalIndy Week, Monsters and Monstrosity from the Fin de Siècle to the Millennium, and Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture. She holds a Ph.D. in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. Learn more about her work at jameeladallis.com.

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By Deborah McDowell, PhD

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I came first to the writing of Brenda Marie Osbey in the 1990s, when I happened upon All Saints (1997) on the crowded shelves of Powell’s, a used bookstore in Chicago. To say that the spine of this slim yet hefty volume lured me, spoke to me, is to summon a cliché, I concede, but this is exactly what happened. Conducting research at the time for a study of the rituals and poetics of grief and mourning in African American literature and culture, I had no idea of the book’s contents, but from the moment I sat down on a dusty stack of cardboard boxes and began to read it, I knew that I had stumbled upon a jewel of a book and a jewel of a poet. I began to search out and devour everything in Osbey’s corpus I could find, going back to the early volumes — Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983), In These Houses (1988), and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman (1991) — but in the roughly 25 years since, All Saints, my first encounter with Osbey’s work, remains the book among her many published titles, I recommend to anyone who wants an introduction to Osbey, the thematic scope of her work, and a glimpse into her ever- evolving poetic practice.  I keep multiple copies of All Saints on hand, gifting them to aspiring poets and avid readers. 

“Why All Saints?” some have asked? I answer, without hesitation, “Because it is the book that captures for me the essence of Brenda Marie Osbey, who is simply, unequivocally, one of the most talented writers of her generation.” Some readers of this issue of The Fight & The Fiddle will be well familiar with her work, but for those new to it, I offer this introduction, focused less on Osbey’s poetics and signatures of craft, than on her themes and philosophies as a writer.

Osbey’s body of work straddles many boundaries and spans diverse intellectual and artistic forms at once: narrative poetry, the lyric, historical narrative, and the personal essay. She has written libretti, translated writers from other languages, including most recently, her translations of poems from the French by Leon-Gontran Damas, which appeared in Black Renaissance Noire (Fall 2018). She has also compiled and edited the poetry of Nigerian writer, Gabriel Okara, publishing Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems in 2016. Not only has Osbey expressed her spectrum of interests in various aesthetic forms, she has also embraced digital media, recording her poems on various electronic sites, providing her readers a sonic experience with her exquisite poetry, as can be found in “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba.”

A native of New Orleans, Osbey has lived most of her life in the Seventh Ward, and this city has served as the wellspring of much of her writing. But while so much of her work draws brilliantly on the “Crescent City,” it does so with the understanding that this Gulf region has “long been a stunningly cross-cultural matrix” (Flores-Silva and Cartwright 174). Osbey captures its Creole culture, textures, and mysteries, melding them into her singular preoccupations as a writer: death and dying, loss and mourning. In her essay, “Writing Home,” Osbey describes death, not just as a central theme, but also a central character of her work. “Not death as Thief in the Night, Grim Reaper, or even Final Repose. But the specific idea of the Dead as part of the continuum of our families and communities” (37), most especially in New Orleans. As she writes in another essay, “I Want to Die in New Orleans,” it is “the only place in this country where people understand the importance of dying well. Where cemeteries are as prominent as office towers. Where the dead get equal time with the living,” where they “walk and talk among the living . . . only now with an authority they never possessed in life” (Lowe 246). I agree with Thadious Davis that, in Osbey’s writings, New Orleans constitutes a “dual city, the city of the living and its embedded double the city of the dead” (239).

Perhaps nowhere in Osbey’s work is this duality more apparent than in All Saints. Flores-Silva and Cartwright do well to remind us that All Saints, like Osbey’s later volume All Souls (2015), comes “from the Gulf’s ritual calendar when days are set aside as puentes (bridges) between secular and sacred life, the living and the dead” (148). Because the latter volume, subtitled The Essential Poems, contains selections from All Saints, I will refer mainly to the poems in that volume here, which might be read as the instantiation of a command the poet issues at the start of its first section: “live among your dead, whom you have every right to love.” The seven poems in this section, notes Thadious Davis, “move between mourning poems for the recently departed, the foreign dead in the Transatlantic African world, and the familial dead in the factories of the American South” (240), but even the poems in later sections of the volume show the stamp of Osbey’s “peculiar fascination with the dead” (25), to borrow the title of one poem.

In “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” which begins with the ritual acts of lighting votive candles, building altars to the dead, keeping mourning portraits, and placing “silver coins in the four corners of your rooms” (25), the speaker is literally living among the dead, speaking of them “as though … they might hear / from the adjoining room” (25). Twelve years old when she is introduced to this domestication of death, the speaker observes these ritual obligations to the dead throughout her life:

i carry silver coins
in the pockets of all my clothes
photographs of my dead follow me
to each new residence.
votive candles and st. john’s wort
go near the head of my grocery lists. (33)

The speaker judges her later lovers “by the heft of mourning / below their eyes / picking my way through their sorrows,” even “carr[ying] the grudges of my dead / like bowls of ash” (33).  Strikingly, she refers to the dead, as my dead, and these remembered souls and loved ones take on the character of precious possessions in Osbey’s work.

It is significant that the majority of mourning poems in the first section of All Saints are written for her friends from Black literary circles, particularly those who have lost their kin — fathers, mothers. She is bearing their dead who become her dead. She picks her way through their sorrows, making them her own. In “Another Time and Farther South,” written for literary critic Clyde Taylor upon the death of his mother, she writes,

in another time and farther south
i would give you ashes for your dead
clean white kerchieves of linen or hand-worked silk
spread crushed shell before you
and tell you to kneel there
and weep in dignity
like a man (20).

While mourning for/with her friend at the loss of his mother, referred to as “your dead,” the speaker is also mourning the loss of rituals once observed in the aftermath of death, rituals now relegated to “another time,” in another place, “so much farther south.” In the face of losing, not only the dead, but also our ritual obligations to them, her only recourse is to offer words instead:

these are words and stand for nothing more
but i can say that in another time and so much farther south
i could have led you through the streets in ashes
one of several women bearing you along
to some sainted spirit ground you could believe on —
a man who had lost his mother, still a son.
and we, the cluster of women
could stand aside beneath the palms
 pressing roots of ginger underfoot.
watching you learn the lesson only death would ever teach. (20-21)

For Osbey, death teaches many lessons, including those that concern a culture’s rituals, its enactments of mourning and memorialization. In her essay, “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral,” she examines this traditional celebration of the dead, placing it in long historical context. The old custom of the first or official line, which began with the “solemn processional” from the church and the “exquisitely drawn-out dirge” (98) changed markedly in the 1970s, she observes. It was now replaced by “street revelers” (98), who comprise the famed second line and who, dispensing with solemnity, start the procession right from the church, dancing and blasting to the final resting place. Rather than lament the changes wrought mainly by contemporary youth, Osbey embraces them, viewing these transformations as reflecting “the conundrum of custom in New Orleans. The ability not merely to adapt but to improvise is itself inherent in all our notions of tradition and culture. Here, improvisation is the tradition” (99). For Osbey, the jazz funeral is not a museum object, but rather a ritual that has long responded to the dynamics of history, reminding the reader that “the tradition we laud and cling to was pretty much already dead and dying” (98) by the 1970s. In a delightfully surprising turn in the essay, she traces its decline in the broader context of transformations in the mourning rituals of New Orleans, dating back to the institution of slavery.

Ever a student of history in longue duree, Osbey reminds the reader that Kongolese brought as captives to Louisiana, established the tradition of “vent[ing] the soul’s sorrow with the customary weeping and wailing” after which mourners would “accompany the dead to their resting place with much rejoicing” (104). Of course, the profit motives of slavery killed all that, foreshortening the mourning period, along with its attendant rituals. As Osbey notes, the “Frenchmen and Spaniards who ruled Louisiana were hardly apt to defer their own money-changing rituals long enough to allow for the ‘proper’ heathen burial rites of their slaves” (104) in urban New Orleans. But while slavery’s commercial obsessions may have cut short the time the enslaved could mourn their dead, she commands their descendants in the poem, “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” not just to “honor their dead/as they ought to be honored” but also to mourn and “marry memory to the dead” (All Saints, 25)

In Osbey’s poem, “House of the Dead Remembering,” the speaker proclaims that “memory is everything” (23) but in “The House in the Street where Memory Lives,” the first poem of the volume, All Souls), this faculty inevitably becomes friable and elusive; “it falls apart” (3). In other words, even memories, visceral, embodied, once stored for the speaker in “the tips of my fingers/the back of my tongue” (3) can die and thus their dying must also be mourned.

In the poems of these companion volumes—All Saints and All Souls—such memories live and die in domestic spaces — houses, bedrooms, parlors, and they connect, appropriately, to personal losses, to “private griefs,” to adapt the title from the poem “Desire and Private Griefs,” (6).  In the structure and motion of some of Osbey poems, however, these private griefs often give way to the poet’s more transcendent meditations on death and loss, on mourning and memory across expanses of time and space. In “Requiem for a Tall Man” (All Souls), for example, the speaker struggles to come to terms with the death of New Orleans writer, Tom Dent.  Appealing to such time-worn adages as “death is a road” we must all travel, the speaker finds a measure of consolation in “tales the old people used to tell” bout “soldiers who came among us for a short time only / bringing peace” (125). The speaker then shifts fluidly, almost imperceptibly, to other, distant temporalities, signaled by references to “dahomey,” “slave ships in the distance,” and to “centuries longer / nearer / than we care ever to have it said.” In the language of the poem, this movement amounts to “splitting memory and time, a movement connecting Dent, son of New Orleans, to a long ancestral past, and to a place where “saints do step in congo-time” (125). That congo-time was once stepped in the famed Congo Square in Tremé of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where a captive people once danced the Congo and other dances from Africa, passing them down to their descendants who kept them alive, along with other African dances and musical beats. “Requiem for a Tall Man,” illustrates the fusion of “private griefs” and collective memory, however vexed the latter term has come to be. Further, the poem captures the ways in which Osbey sees the cultural injunction — indeed the obligation — to honor and remember “our” dead, as a collective responsibility that includes the “many thousands gone” across the centuries, across expanses of space, time, and condition. Their griefs continuous with our own.

A voracious reader with a greedy intellect, Osbey has long had a penchant for libraries, antiquarian bookshops, and maps, ancient and modern. Indeed, the cover and frontispiece of History and Other Poems (2012) are fashioned from a detail of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 Universalis Cosmographia.

Picture1

In recent years, her work has shown increasing investment in history and quarrels with the archive, perhaps dating from one of her earliest jobs as a researcher in foreign languages at the main branch of the New Orleans public library.  She described that experience in her essay, “Writing Home.”

Five days a week and sometimes six, I read through countless books, periodicals, and published and unpublished theses and dissertations on the subjects of slavery, resistance and freedom in colonial Louisiana. I sorted and compiled documents and detailed background files on the origins, material culture, family life, and employment of the city’s early African captives. I routinely studied records of births, marriages, and deaths, and translated last wills and testaments of wealthy free blacks who left everything to schools, churches, and benevolent societies. There were catalogues of ships’ arrivals and cargo, inventories of properties including black human property. And there were endless rebellions and uprisings, followed by capture, ritual decapitation or some other slaughter. I followed the creation of armed black militia, conditions under which the enslaved either earned or purchased freedom, the court testimony of the enslaved against their masters, and other peculiarities of urban slavery the way I’d once followed the latest dance moves” (40).

In one way or another, these and other historical details, undoubtedly the fruits of Osbey’s passion for research show up in her writings.  Asked in an October 2013 online interview in Warscapes Magazine, if a poem can be history, Osbey answered with characteristic erudition:

There is a longer tradition of the poet-as-historian than we readily admit. . . Much of the
accepted history of Western antiquity comes to us from Homer . . . Much of what we’ve
come to understand about life in pre-Columbian Americas. Indeed, much if not most of
what we know (or claim to know) about the ancient worlds of Africa, Asia, the Americas
and Europe, we know through poetry. . . This presumed divide between history and poetry
really is a relatively recent one, and one that seems to underscore the recent need to seg-
regate intellectual and creative work into neat and exclusive categories. 

Osbey’s work has never honored such conventional categorizations, never less so than in History and Other Poems. There, Osbey takes a questioning, reflective, critical view of the very category of history, questioning most especially its suppressions and distortions, not least those pertaining to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Her volume’s title poem, “History,” that critical impulse is evident in the volume’s titles poem, “History, which takes its epigraph from Robert Hayden’s poem, “The Islands”: “But I am tired today of history / its patina’d clichés / of endless evil.” This long narrative poem explores unflinchingly the violent history of this trade in Black flesh, of European and American colonialism, the effects and reverberations of which can be felt, the book implies, to this very day. Traversing centuries, circling the globe, by land and sea, the poems of this volume bear the stamp of Osbey’s linguistic dexterity, her vernacular range, and her Olympian intellect. The poem provides the reader a history of violence and conquest, of evil and oppression, as well as an extended meditation on history itself, or more precisely our assumptions about it. After the myths, the fables, the abridgments, the approximations, and the outright lies that masquerade in its name, what, then, is History? While the speaker of “History” answers this question in a variety of ways, one pronouncement is clear: “there is no history of this world that is not written in black” (58).

The poem takes the form of a synoptic lesson, albeit a “weary wearied and wearying lesson, “and yet it is to lessons we must go,” the speaker intones, for we have not learned it “well enough” (51). To learn that history requires relinquishing the “chanties about some ocean-blue / because for us / all oceans are forever red” (51). The speaker is clear that, while the “whole of history seems designed to render me sad / disconsolate / broken-hearted / and plain old down” (69), the lessons of slavery’s evils, its “archipelagos of death” must be learned, even if “the real measure of human loss” (51)  never be tallied.

History and Other Poems puts Osbey, the linguist and archivist, on full display, particularly in the appended glossary and notes, which include references to the many terms from African and European languages appearing throughout the volume. In introducing the glossary, Osbey explains that the collection uses “phrases, terminology and historically appropriate names of people, places, and cultural concepts from a variety of languages deployed in the forging of the New World — French, Spanish, Portuguese, reconstituted (New Orleans) Creole — in addition to American/English of the various periods” (73). The glossary is careful to parse their meanings, their uses and misuses.

In the 2013 interview referenced above, Osbey mentions “reject[ing] outright the kind of figurative language that underplays the role of the extreme violence of slavery in the New World project,” and one passage of the title poem, “History,” addresses this obscene history at the unit of the word “slavery.”  

Then bring me the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor for servitude

metaphor for addiction
as metaphor for love
metaphor for anything
bring me their tongues
to tack up on the walls of those castles —
o fort and fortress —
by the saddest of the old old seas.

Despite the references in this passage to the walls and castles of slave forts, I am inclined to read this section, which takes the form of a curse (a form that Osbey also favors), as reflecting Osbey’s concerns about the misuses of language in contemporary parlance and popular culture. As she has noted in “The Poem as History” interview in Warscapes, such “quotidian use of metaphor and other figures of speech” functions to “erase and to disappear the lived experience of a people”

Osbey attempts to capture that “lived experience” in History and Other Poems, even knowing how elusive such attempts are in fact. Though Osbey has written a volume of vast chronological sweep, encompassing references from the 15th century to the present, no one knows better than she that the “lesson” offered up in “History” is but a fragment of the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the horror it unleashed upon the world. The title poem, which closes the volume, ends on a curiously teasing note: “for now we may well consider ourselves done/having come to the end of the addenda/ to the preface for this introduction / of our little history / part one” (70). Addenda? Preface? Introduction? History Part One?

In writing a history that is difficult to tell and does not end, Osbey joins other contemporary poets, such as M. NourbeSe Philip, whose work also addresses historical atrocities, only to render them incapable of capture. In her justly celebrated book length poem, Zong! Philip takes up the history of the late eighteenth-century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slave trading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. As Susan Holbrook notes, in this oceanic poem, which reaches across centuries, Philip works to tell the “untellable,” to deliver a “story that can never fully emerge” (https://jacket2.org/article/m-nourbese-philips-unrecoverable-subjects).

In bringing History and Other Poem to a close with the teasing allusions to “addenda,” “preface,” “introduction,” Osbey announces, if only implicitly, that she is far from done with history. Luckily, for her band of faithful readers, among whom I count myself, she has recently turned her attention to the history of Virginia in a volume-in-progress titled “Virginia Suite,” which builds logically on History and Other Poems.

Also reflecting Osbey’s lifelong penchant for the archive, this project focuses on interactions of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in the earliest years of the Virginia Colony, considering how perceptions and representations of the 1607 settlement at Jamestown have shaped and continue to shape North American history, mythology, education, law and social/cultural engagement. Now well underway, the seedling of this volume was “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts,” a poem commissioned by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, at the University of Virginia, to commemorate the Foster Family/Canada Park Dedication in 2011. The remains of Foster and other free Blacks, who lived on the edges of the University of Virginia’s central grounds, were disinterred when the school began excavating the landscape to prepare for the construction of a new building, which now houses the History Department. While the commemoration represented the institution’s way of remembering and honoring the dead, the poem represents another, one that raises implicit questions about the complexities of institutional commemoration.

The speaker of this poem addresses the reader from the silence of the grave, engaging in her own act of remembering — of her children, a neighbor, Hester, all once alive in “this one small plot — / briefest sanctuary / home and work / laughter and sweet communion / smallest respite against so many martyrs on the way.” For Katherine Foster and those “free blacks” remembered in this poem, the sanctuary of “sweet communion” coexists with the threat of violence.  In its second stanza, the poem turns to the “gentlemen” of the university nervous about the goings-on “southeast to southampton.” This is an obvious, tacit reference to Nat Turner, whose actions generated a massacre of blacks, in the aftermath of his rebellion. In retaliation, “no one asks” who is “slave or free,” but proceeds to “hacking negroes right and left.” In the face of this slaughter, the stanza’s closing question is particularly resonant: “exactly what / after all / is / a free negro?”

The poem implies other, broader questions critical to the workings and makings of history, memory, and memorialization, especially for the present. The speaker observes the care being taken with “every little thing” as the excavation proceeds. These gravediggers of a different kind, now charged with “unearthing and replanting” the remains of Katherine Foster and those with whom she shares the grave, may show a “tenderness now that we are gone- / or so they tell themselves.”

What do those in the present tell themselves about the past? As the poem moves unhurriedly to its conclusion, the speaker asks related questions:

 and now that we are neighbors to that great institution

who ever will tell what only we could tell?
 who knows the cost of what we bought and paid for?
who dares to tell the cost of mr jefferson’s
own sweet dream
and higher calling
for this upper country.

“In Memory of Katherine Foster” takes a quietly critical view of this project of memorialization mounted by a university built and sustained by the labor of the formerly enslaved. Although Katherine Foster was a “free Black,” she, the speaker of the poem, understands that the line dividing slave from free is porous. She understands, moreover, that the act of honoring and remembering the dead and sacralizing their remains necessitates a violent disturbance of the peace and the sanctuary of the grave’s repose. In other words, erecting this memorial to Katherine Foster requires, in the words of the poem, “cutting through bloodied red earth / cutting through this one small plot,” that held the remains of those in this free black community of Canada.

Osbey accepted a second commission from the University of Virginia, one from the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU), producing “Fieldwork” to commemorate yet another burial ground at another edge of the university. This cemetery contains the remains of 67 workers once enslaved to the university and situated below the University Cemetery boundary. Much like “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” “Fieldwork” focuses its attention on the finite, intimate details defining the lives and deaths of those now buried, including the causes of their deaths: tetanus, pneumonia, maternal mortality, typhoid, and consumption. Listed in the “ledger and book” as “unknown,” these souls, notes the speaker, were not “unknown” to “those who love and tend them in the end / not by us / not by rust-red earth / soft-brushed by hands that carry and tend” them.

As in “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” this commemoration of these 67 souls amounts, in its way, to a disturbance. Notes the speaker of the poem,

it is worse than wicked to disturb those going to talk well with their own
grave evil to prevent them from keeping
good company with their own dead.

Understanding the archaeological investments in material culture for the sake of knowledge, the speaker notes nevertheless, “it is well to consider / that research design is one language / reverence another.” Osbey’s own preference for reverence shows in the poem’s final stanza, in which those “unknown,” now named — tessa, hannah, billy, strong mike, william, tom, bacchus, violet, liza and baby liza, old limas, and others — now “surveying / beyond what-all remains of this green/embowered wood.” Now “neither slave nor servant,” they commune in repose, together in “these our truest skins … inside this silty red and clayey soil,” casting off “the evils of this place.”           

It is significant that Osbey wrote “In Memory of Katherine Foster” and “Fieldwork” in this moment when the University of Virginia, like other institutions of higher learning in the United States, is supposedly “reckoning with its past.”  Founded and sustained by the uncompensated labor of the enslaved, these universities now openly acknowledge that their foundations and prosperity were tied inextricably to this labor, to the violence and brutality on the bodies that performed it. In subtle ways, these poems invite us to think about the questions Saidya Hartman raises about slavery, collective memory, and the ethical responsibilities of commemoration. Hartman is writing specifically about tourism as a “vehicle of memory” at former slave forts and castles, which she appropriately calls “dungeons,” but her questions are much more broadly applicable, including to present-day acts of commemoration in which the consortium of “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery.” Hartman asks, “How can this encounter with the past fuel emancipatory efforts?  Is it enough that these acts of commemoration rescue the unnamed and unaccounted for from obscurity and oblivion . .  . Is there a necessary relation between remembrance and redress?  Can the creation of a collective memory of past crimes insure the end of injustice” (“Slavery’s Time,” 773)?  These are weighty questions, and they are not lost on Osbey, who must perform the delicate balancing act:  accepting a commission in the interest of a university “confronting slavery,” while granting herself the license to register the complexities—at times, the violence—of that confrontation.

In 1967: On the Semicentenary of the Desegregation of the College of William and Mary,” another poem in “The Virginia Suite,” Osbey brings her poetry of remembrance closer to our times. The College of William and Mary commissioned “1967” to commemorate the year when three African American women — Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely — desegregated the college. Although focused on a different time and place, this long narrative poem, comprised of three cantos, takes a panoramic view of history, embedding the moment of the school’s desegregation in the thick, rich context of early Virginia and beyond. Much like “History,” “1967” incorporates fragments from historical documents within the narrative progression of a poem that also seeks to consider the personal costs of historical change. “how-long-how-many-how-much-exactly-is the cost of a slow and peaceful/desegregation?” Here too, as in the other poems discussed here, Osbey does not shy away from considering this question within the trajectory of the long Black freedom struggle, a struggle fraught with violence and a

special strain of terror
reserved for negro girl-children
with their bookstraps and lunchbox
smartly gathered or pleated dresses, and socks folded over just so… .
who walked past white mothers cursing, screaming
spitting nigger nigger like anybody’s business

Despite this history of the utter violence of desegregation captured in “1967,” the poem concludes on this note: 1967 “was a very good year to be alive and blacker even than you knew.” We might be inclined to extract from this line the evidence of progress, but such would simplify Osbey’s project, and blunt the sharp edge of her critique.  She is certainly alert in “1967” to the legacy of the past in the present, as well as to what Dennis Beach has termed, those bodies who are “oppressed by history.” The chronological scope of the poem, as well as that of “History” suggests that there is a kind of memory that “throbs with a pain that is past but never past enough,” thus making history “our neighbor,” and remembrance, a particular kind of ethical obligation (318). Osbey has continued to register that “pain that is never past” in one of her most recent poems planted firmly in the present.

Long reluctant to permit her work to be published in anthologies, Osbey recently relented, contributing “AS YET UNTITLED: A Seasonal Suite” to Martin Espada’s anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. This poem is part of another suite-in-progress that Osbey is calling “As Yet Untitled.” That suite is a component of the much larger, “Etudes Project,” which she described in a note to me as a “batch of ‘studies’ in language/rhythm/rhyme/voice/scan, etc.”

 “A Seasonal Suite” explores the wanton loss of black life in the contemporary moment, much owing to the rising tide of white supremacy. In the space in the poem where grief might be, outrage stands instead. The poem sustains this tone from beginning to end. The everyday, relentless slaughter, defining a “season of hate and of violence,” can be “any date year month time” in “regions without borders or bounds.” From college campuses to suburban cul-de-sacs to churches, there is no surcease from this excrescent violence, the victims of which the poem does not name. It seems that there is “no longer interval or spell neither span nor while not stretch” to pause for naming, for mourning these casualties resulting from the “puling entitlement” of white supremacy.

The speaker references these victims only tacitly, but no one who has lived through this “era and epoch” can fail to insert their names: Trayvon Martin, the Charleston Nine, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, to name but a few. These black bodies all blend into each other, much as the poem piles on, with few line breaks and no punctuation, “after-crime scenes:”

suburban cul-de-sacs small city traffic lanes major metropolitan area thoroughfares rural mail routes kindergartens gymnasiums waterfronts campuses driveways churches

Here this non-stop pile of liquefying references accumulates, spilling over, edging each other out. There is no space for pausing, for catching breath.

The poem conjoins this “era and epoch season” to a long history of bloody violence, including that meted out on Black bodies by the KKK, by lynch mobs, whose “mitochondria” has “mutated” to form new mobs, parading out from behind the cloak of sheets. Those with only “blank whiteness to trade on” engage in a latter-day ritual of holding “sheets / frayed through at the center making cross-eyes at the dark world beyond.”

“A Seasonal Suite” invites comparison to “Absent Trees and Rope,” the title Osbey gave her introduction to an issue of Warscapes, which she curated in September 2015. She began that essay by describing the deaths of more than six dozen African Americans from May through October, 1916, “one of the most horrific seasons of racist violence in the United States since the end of slavery.” she went on to say. Historians have long referred to these five months as the Red Summer of Hate, although it was, as Osbey notes, “only one of many peaks in the continuum of white supremacist invective, assault and murder” (http://www.warscapes.com/author/brenda-marie-osbey).

African American poets were not slow to address this violence in their time, including Claude McKay, whose famous sonnet, “If We Must Die,” was one response. In inviting the poets Frank X Walker, E. Ethelbert Miller, Afaa Weaver, Duriel Harris, and Major Jackson to contribute to this special issue, Osbey situates herself — and these poets — within a long line of writers of conscience, who have “historically refused to remain silent in the face of racist violence and abuse.” With this issue, indeed with her whole body of work, Osbey illustrates that famous adage of the late poet Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not a luxury,” which she quotes in “The Poem as History.” As she puts it, “My own practice has always been to think of poetry first, foremost and always as a way of engaging and interacting in and with the world.” Not only does her writing embody this way of thinking, so do the other public offices she has unselfishly performed. As Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Osbey represented the state in numerous national forums and brought to this devastation of Hurricane Katrina, insights that escaped the titular experts, the talking heads, and the opportunists who exploited the tragedy for their own gain. Her own poem, “Litany of our Lady,” performed on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, references and remembers the disaster, while avoiding the temptation, indulged in by so many, to serve up the tropes of a disaster tour. As she writes in a brief essay accompanying an online version of the poem, “New Orleans has survived repeated disasters, tragedies, cataclysms and reverses … Through it all, she remains. And those of us with enough of her in our blood, skin, teeth and bones are resolved also to remain.” The world of writers, scholars, and teachers is fortunate indeed that Brenda Marie Osbey is “resolved to remain” in New Orleans, the wellspring of so much fine work, but she has also shown an equal resolve to remain planted in whatever place engages her with the world and the work of honoring the dead, whom we are obligated to keep alive.

 

Works Cited

Dennis Beach. “History and the Other:  Dussel’s Challenge to Levinas. Philosophy and Social Criticism. 30.3 (2004):  315-330.

Davis, Thadious. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014.

Flores-Silva, Dolores, and Keith Cartwright. “Feeding the Gulf Dead: An Ofrenda of Response to Brenda Marie Osbey’s All Saints & All Souls.” The Southern Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, 2018, pp. 162-177. Project Muse, muse.jhu.edu/article/710408.

Hartman, Saidya. “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002): 757-777.

Holbrook, Susan. “M. NourbeSe Philip’s Irrecoverable Subjects,” Retrieved from

            https://jacket2.org/article/m-nourbese-philips-unrecoverable-subjects

Lowe, John (Ed.). Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Era to Katrina. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008.

Osbey, Brenda Marie. “Absent Trees and Rope.” Warscapes, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.warscapes.com/tags/african-american

—. All Saints: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997.

—. All Souls: Essential Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2015.

—. “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral.” The Georgia Review, vol. 50, no. 1., 1996, pp. 97-107. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41401226 .

—. “Writing Home.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2008, p. 19+. Gale Literature Resource Center.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


IMG_8320Deborah E. McDowell is the Alice Griffin Professor of Literary Studies and Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.  Her publications include ‘The Changing Same’:  Studies in Fiction by African-American WomenLeaving Pipe Shop:  Memories of Kin, The Punitive Turn:  Race, Inequality, and Mass Incarceration, as well as numerous articles, book chapters, and scholarly editions. Professor McDowell founded the African-American Women Writers Series for Beacon Press and served as its editor from 1985-1993. She also served as a period editor for the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, now in its third edition;  contributing editor to the D. C. Heath Anthology of American Literature, and co-editor with Arnold Rampersad of Slavery and the Literary Imagination.  Her service on various editorial boards has included Publications of the Modern Language Association, American Literature, Genders, and African-American Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Her awards and honors include fellowships from Radcliffe, the National Research Council Fellowship of the Ford Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellowship.  She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Purdue University in 2006.

 

 

Editor’s Note: While our usual editorial style uses poets’ last names on second reference, this essay intentionally breaks with that style as a nod to the intimacy the poet has cultivated with audiences and readers.

By Kendra N. Bryant, PhD

I turned myself into myself and was
jesus
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
 —Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)” 

Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

&I find Jesus and Nikki to be quite similar, maybe even one and the same. Admittedly, however, I don’t know either that well. But I think I know enuf about them to make such an assertion. See, I’m thinking if Jesus really is on Mars,[1] then Nikki’s fascination with space is really her fascination with herself, but not in an ego-tripping, self-centered fashion; more like a return to Self. Otherwise, why else in her 1971 essay, “Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet” — which begins with her own Creation story about a possibly bored Earth who was one with the sun before it, like Mercury and Mars, flew away from the sun (with Venus in tow) — did Nikki write she is “a being from almost another planet” (133, 136)? Maybe she is.

Maybe Nikki is from Mars, and when she turned herself into herself and was Jesus, her body was transported to Earth.

Or: Maybe Nikki is so enthralled with space travel because her identical twin, they both born from one fertilized egg split in two, lives on Mars with Jesus. After all, Nikki is a Gemini. Maybe Nikki’s identical twin communicates with Nikki in her dreams, which is how Nikki knows “[w]hen the man in the moon smiles, [t]he men on Mars dance,”[2] unless Mae Jemison told her so[3]. And maybe it was Nikki’s twin who told her to name her son Thomas, the apostle called “twin.” He, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, was willing to die with Jesus as He journeyed back to Judea, where Jews attempted to stone him, to see the deceased Lazarus (John 11:16). Perhaps Jesus wanted to make sure Nikki had her own “ride or die.”

If Nikki’s twin, who lives on Mars with Jesus, is talking to Nikki in her dreams, then that would also explain why Nikki Giovanni is a writer who believes “a Black beautiful, loving world is possible” (“Gemini” 149). After all, Nikki has spent her life propagating “Black love is Black wealth”[4] thru works that lionize Black feeling, Black talk[5] — writin bout how Black folks cook, quilt, pray, sing, sex, dance, protest — how they “remained humane under inhumane conditions.”[6] And still do.  

I’m thinking: Jesus, who I know was a nappy headed Negro, gave Black folks Nikki cause He knew she would rightly manifest Him (and His Black love) here on Earth — not quite like Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream”–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Jesus manifestation, but like Nikki Giovanni Re: Creation–Black JudgementChasing Utopia manifestation. That’s why John, who was a witness for Jesus, begins his book with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). You get it?

Nikki told us she became a writer because she had no other skills she did as well (“Gemini” 135), and that’s clearly because Jesus made sure her writerly self was here on Earth: to right (or write) the truth. And although Jesus gave Nikki what would feel to most of us an unsurmountable task, I believe she was born for it, for as a little girl she daydreamed about “hold[ing] the whole world up if I so chose,” she says, (138) and then explains with “power comes responsibility,” which Nikki recalls her grandmother taught her, was to her people (138).

Undoubtedly, her people are Black women Nikki describes as “the single group in the West intact … the only group that derives its identity from itself” (144) — which is why, when Nikki turns herself into herself, she is Jesus. Her people are Black women, she says; they are the “for and to”[7]— the ones who will be “quilting a black-eyed pea”[8] when Black America lands on Mars, and Nikki knows this because her twin is already there with Jesus. And together, at midnight, over a glass of red wine, they commune with Nikki, which colors her dreams — although she thinks her dreams are colored by her “morning breakfast routines.”[9]

Either way, it is quite likely since Nikki Giovanni doesn’t have a biological twin (she knows of) and human life forms have yet to be discovered on Mars, that Nikki carries a two-ness. But it ain’t the Du Boisian double consciousness that too many Black folks have accepted. Nikki ain’t been engaged in “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 9). For she confesses in an “I am” approach:

I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.

(“Nikki-Rosa,” 53; lines 27-33)

Nikki’s twoness, instead, is like an incomprehensible spirit frolicking in a body that operates in a manner inviting people to receive her words, her message. But Nikki is more than “we are spirits having a human experience.”[10] Because her embodiment surpasses our understanding — at least my own — Nikki is alien. Yet! because she is so hueman, she is also a friend.

While I, like most little Black girls, consumed and regurgitated Nikki’s 1972 “Ego Tripping” poem — and even claimed her sixth stanza re: her “recreation” my favorite — I began musing over Nikki’s Jesus self after reading her latest collection: A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter (William Morrow, 2017). During her lectures at Furious Flower’s 2019 Legacy Seminar, which I attended, Nikki shared she was learning to cry, thus the impetus of the 54 poems and 111 pages that make up her compilation: “I am trying to learn / How to cry,” Nikki writes in her poem, “Baby West” (6; stanza 14 ). “It’s not that my life / Has been a lie / But that I repressed / My tears” (6; stanza 15).

I listened to Nikki talk about how she rarely cried, how she couldn’t cry, but as of late she cries at the drop of a hat, and I thought of Jesus. I thought of the Jesus, who, like Nikki, was at the frontlines of revolutionary wars, if you will. About how they —  witnessing famine, genocide, and capitalism, losing loved ones, and being rejected — still said yes; still gave love; and still offered the gospel as they stood in their is-ness, in that “I am” spirit. And I thought: Of all the shit Jesus witnessed and endured, why did Lazarus’ death make him cry? What made Nikki want to learn to cry?

According to Biblical scripture, after seeing the sadness Lazarus’ friends and his sisters, Mary and Martha, carried, Jesus “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (John 11:33). And when Jesus looked upon Lazarus’ dead body, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus eventually resurrects Lazarus, which he might’ve done because He wanted to prove to onlookers He is the resurrection and the life, which He proclaims to Martha in verse 25. Or Jesus so loved Lazarus, as the Jews observe in verse 36, that He could not bear Lazarus’ death. So Jesus told Lazarus to get up. I’m no Biblical scholar, but I think any way the wind blows, Jesus’ weeping humanizes Him, while His ability to resurrect Lazarus speaks to an incomprehensible divinity. Moreover, the letting go, as expressed in Jesus’ tears, conjured life.

Jesus basically surrendered to His feelings, and I think Nikki Giovanni is experiencing a similar phenomenon. In her effort to cry, Nikki purposely engages that human expression that personifies her, and I wonder: What divine thing will she bring forth? What or whom will she resurrect?

In A Good Cry, Nikki writes to her family, friends, and Virginia Tech students. She writes about food, nature, and Black lives mattering, while remembering Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ruby Dee, and Rita Dove. Nikki acknowledges schools, movements, and museums; she imagines Black women singing in Mars, she shakes with Big Maybelle in a Newport nightclub, and she makes clear the difference between school and education. Nikki says she wants to be a fly on the wall (as well as a possum in autumn). She takes her water with sugar and fruit juices, and as a little girl, she loved to dust the bathroom lightbulbs. Clearly, A Good Cry is a myriad of personal experiences and relationships —much like a creative nonfiction memoir that, although points to the author’s life, also points readers to their own lives.

I don’t understand all of the poems in A Good Cry, specifically not “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying,” and I am fine with not understanding it. I don’t particularly analyze poetry; for poetry shouldn’t be as much analyzed as it should be felt. And so I’ve been feeling my way through A Good Cry wanting to happen upon the Jesus piece — the one specific poem that further supports my notions re: Nikki’s relationship with Jesus, particularly their emotionality. (Because I really do want to connect “Jesus wept” and A Good Cry.)

At first reading, I was almost sure “Space: Our Frontier” was it. I’ve been so amused with Jesus being on Mars with Nikki’s twin sister, this poem felt like the Word. In it, Nikki urges NASA to send Appalachian Hill writing students to Antarctica to observe its climate because Antarctica is “the closest thing we have to Space” (10). Especially because the poem’s first line mentions the Middle Passage — which nods to her 2002 “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” — and then speaks about endeavoring to Antarctica, “in friendship,” to uncover the life forms that the “quiet side” of the sun warms (9), I initially believed “Space: Our Frontier” was the Jesus piece. I mean, how can one not feel Jesus in Nikki’s expressions, which include lines like: “our dreams [being] the perfect beginning” (11)? But as convincing as “Space: Our Frontier” is, that poem is not it. The it poem signaling Nikki’s Jesus self is “I Married My Mother.”

Almost centering the book, “I Married My Mother” is compiled of 45 lines, the longest being eight words. It is the Jesus piece that signals the resurrection of both Nikki Giovanni and her mother; their relationship is the impetus for Nikki’s other relationships, most of which are shared via Nikki’s lectures, poems, and prose pieces. “I Married My Mother” is Nikki’s declared return to self, or her acceptance of her ultimate self, wherein Nikki finds safety (again) in a “mother-love” [11] made possible through her own communal practices. In other words, just like Jesus’ purpose was made clear in how He communed with the disinherited, Nikki’s purpose is defined through her community relationships.

Understanding the depth of this poem is best done, I think, in consideration of Howard Thurman’s[12] philosophies about one’s purpose, which is thoughtfully explicated in Luther E. Smith’s 1988 “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Smith’s essay is organized into three sections, and part 1, “Reality’s Narrative,” explains Thurman’s ideas about ultimate reality as it exists in community, God, and love. Although Smith’s entire essay is worth discussing here, I will focus on “Reality’s Narrative,” which does the most to support my notion re: Nikki’s “I Married My Mother” being a Christlike expression.

Part 1 of Smith’s essay includes two sections: “Community and God” and “The Love-ethic.” These sections collectively explain Thurman’s theory that ultimate meaning, in other words, one’s purpose in life, is informed by one’s relationship to one’s community, which results in one’s relationship to God, and concludes with one manifesting that relationship to God by relationshipping with others. To understand “I Married My Mother” in terms of Thurman’s “Search for Ultimate Meaning” requires folks to know a little bit about Nikki’s childhood experiences and the relationship she had with her mother and other beings, sentient and non-sentient. (I suggest reading The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), which includes “Gemini,” “Sacred Cows and Other Edibles,” and “Racism 101”).

Nonetheless, to understand “I Married My Mother,” readers should know this: Nikki Giovanni was born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee; however, she spent her elementary and middle school years in Cincinnati, OH, until she entered ninth grade, at which time she moved back to Knoxville where she completed her high school years under her maternal grandparents’ guardianship. Nikki’s father was abusive, and at 15 years old, she no longer wanted to bear witness to her father’s abuse. According to Virginia Fowler’s “Chronology” reprinted in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (William Morrow, 2003),  Nikki’s grandmother, “who is involved in numerous charitable and political endeavors, becomes an increasing influence on her, teaching her the importance of helping others and fighting injustice” (xxi). Nikki was also influenced by two of her high school teachers, says Fowler (xxi) — all of whom inarguably facilitate Nikki’s affinity for little old ladies.

In between writing and publishing poetry, receiving awards, and participating in lectures, Nikki also became her parents’ caretaker, purchasing a house her abusive father had to live in, thus removing him as head of household and, therefore, as the dominant force of her mother’s abuse. While Nikki’s relationship with her parents (and her sister who was two years her elder) coupled with the relationships she encountered as a Black woman navigating white America’s supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, are common tropes in Nikki’s poetic works, “I Married My Mother” focuses on Nikki’s relationship with her mother, which is actually an interrogation of herself. According to Howard Thurman, says Smith, “At the most fundamental level of physical survival we can see that each form of life depends upon an other-than-self source for nourishment. Existence requires relatedness” [emphasis mine] (85). As such, in “I Married My Mother,” Nikki describes her relationship with her mother through her relationship with crying — and both, mother-love and crying, are sources of nourishment vital to human survival.

Nikki’s poem begins with her claiming crying is a skill she “maybe” will learn; however, she “automatically” wipes tears from her face, thus implying crying, the process of shedding tears, is not a skill — for crying is the eye’s natural response to removing irritants, reducing stress hormones, and fighting pathogenic microbes — but the when of crying is the skill Nikki hopes to learn. In other words, crying as an expression of one’s vulnerability is the skill Nikki says she “maybe” will learn, noting both her mother and sister did learn to cry. They dared to be vulnerable:

I know crying
Is a skill
I automatically wipe
My eyes even though I know
Crying
Is a skill

Maybe I will learn                       
My mother did
When she thought
I was asleep

Following Nikki’s admission (which is her being vulnerable) Nikki invites her sister Gary into her musings. “I think my sister did / Sleep / But sleep is as difficult / To me as crying” (lines 11-14). Gary not only knew how to cry, but unlike Nikki, she was also able to sleep. This departure from her relationship with her mother is significant to understanding Nikki Giovanni’s whole at-home community, for Nikki’s sister seemed to have it all, as Nikki notes in her autobiographical essays and shares in her lectures. Nikki grew up literally under Gary, often admiring her and “bending” to her will, while loving her fiercely.

Nikki then goes on to write: “I laugh easily / And I smile / And withhold any true / Feelings” (lines 15-18). Basically, Nikki laughs to keep from crying, which is a common mode of survival within Black communities. According to Smith: “Thurman writes that ‘at the core of life is a hard purposefulness, a determination to live.’ This purposefulness is not a drive that occurs in isolation,” writes Smith, “for each expression of life is dependent upon other forms of life for the achievement of its potential” [author’s emphasis] (85). Although withholding one’s true feelings is a pretense that may invite unauthentic relationships,  laughing and holding back one’s true feelings are absolutely an expression of one’s “determination to live,” for falling apart — feeling — is a luxury, I think, many Black people (mothers, activists, teachers) cannot afford, for they may not be able to put themselves back together again. I think in the same way Nikki felt she was not afforded the luxury of feeling, neither did Jesus, which is why He did not “fall apart” until the latter part of his life. But to Thurman’s first point, Nikki’s determination to live was dependent upon her relatedness with others such as her mother, her sister, as well as her teacher and father, both of whom Nikki addresses next in her poem.

In the 11 lines following Nikki’s claiming to “withhold any true feelings,” she writes:

Except once I fell in love
With my eighth grade teacher
And spent most of my life trying
To feel safe
Again
Though maybe
I’m safe
Now
After almost thirty years
Which is as long
As I lived with my mother

These lines direct readers to the “mother-love” relationships Nikki found in her teachers, although she speaks of only one here. Nevertheless, in her “mother-love” relationships with teachers, Nikki fulfills Thurman’s second point re: “reality is community” (85). According to Thurman, says Smith, “Reality is community because all creation works together for the completion of the telos of life itself” (85). Nikki’s will to “fall in love” is her conscious intent of being whole, as implied in the lines: “And spent most of my life trying / To feel safe / Again” (ll. 21-23). As noted earlier, Nikki’s father was abusive, and as a result of no longer being able to witness that abuse, Nikki moved to Knoxville with her grandparents where they, as well as Nikki’s teachers, became her safe place(s). However, it is Nikki’s “determination to live” that invites her community to “support the groaning of [her] life toward fulfillment” (Smith 85). Undoubtedly, Nikki’s move to Knoxville, away from her parents, coupled with her will to fall in love, express Nikki’s “groaning of life.”

Furthermore, Nikki’s experience with loving her eighth-grade teacher signals her acquaintance with a loving God, which supports Thurman’s third point: “God is ‘the fact of life from which all other things take their meaning and reality’” (qtd. in Smith 86).  God is All. God is the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. In making his final point, says Smith, Thurman explains how ultimate reality is perceived through knowing God, claiming such knowing is a religious experience — but not in the traditional brick-and-mortar-church-attending religious experience. Instead, one experiences God inside loving relationships — which, although I am focused here on relationships with people — includes (as Shug Avery[13] teaches us) all sentient beings. According to Smith, most important to Thurman’s ideas re: God as ultimate reality is understanding “God is not only creator, holy presence, form, and vitality, but God is also love. God embraces creation with compassion” (87). Nikki experienced God’s love within the mentorship relationship she shared with her eighth-grade teacher, for that teacher’s compassion for Nikki mirrored the compassion God has for all creation; God’s love is the ultimate “mother-love.” Thus, in that mother-loving relationship with her teacher, Nikki finds safety and, therefore, “a new sense of self” (87). Quoting Smith entirely best explains my point:

[T]he individual attains knowledge about ultimate concerns through an encounter with God; it is within this encounter that God is experienced as love. Thurman describes the individual’s experience as that which results in ‘the confidence of ultimate security.’ The individual feels embraced completely by a loving power that is responsive to his/her needs. And this not only discloses God’s nature, but it gives the individual a new sense of self. The fact that this love would be poured out upon individuals gives them the assurance of their worth within the heart of God … It is God’s compassion at this most personal level which therefore leads to the conclusion that the relationship with God is characterized by intimacy. God’s nearness is more than proximity and knowing; it is caring response to a person’s deepest needs. This experience of intimacy has the effect of making all matters of ultimate meaning conform with the sensation of God’s love. Whatever is ultimately meaningful must be consistent with God’s loving embrace of life, which includes God’s embrace of the individual. [emphasis mine] (87-88)

Thus, in Nikki’s relationship with her teacher, as well as her relationship with her grandparents, especially her grandmother, Nikki Giovanni is reacquainted with God. (And I offer reacquaintance because Nikki’s mother is her first God experience; however, the at-home abuse she witnessed was dispiriting.) Nonetheless, Nikki’s second stanza concludes with her contemplating her safety, writing: “Though maybe / I’m safe / Now / After almost thirty years / Which is as long / As I lived with my mother” (ll. 24-29).

In addition to being the poem’s volta, which is the rhetorical shift in thought or emotion, these five lines suggest Nikki’s reinstatement, if you will, of her feeling safe with her mother. Here, and into her final two stanzas, Nikki assumes her Jesus self, wherein, theorizes Thurman, “As individuals seek to conform their lives to the love felt in their religious experience, they come to the awareness that the life of the self is inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Although Nikki’s poem doesn’t unveil all the creative contributions Nikki has given the world, especially her Black community, those of us familiar with Nikki Giovanni, know her life — most of which was spent in community with her mother — was also spent “inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Nikki has dedicated her entire creative life manifesting Creator through her relationships with others; and they are documented in poem. As such, Nikki’s “greater sense of self is accompanied by a sense of community. Therefore, [she] seek[s] to increase the expression of love within society” (88). In the beginning was the Word …

Finally, Nikki’s last two stanzas conclude thusly:

Maybe that’s not a poem
Maybe that’s something else
Maybe I just wanted to show my father
That he needn’t be
Cruel
Maybe I just enjoyed buying
The house he had to live in
Showing her she should have married
Me instead of him
Or maybe since we will all soon
Be gone
I should be happy I found
My mother in someone
Else who loves me

What else
Really matters

Considering Nikki uses the term “maybe” five times in these final verses (seven times throughout the entire poem), I think we can arguably conclude these verses are musings meant for the poet’s own contemplation — similar to Jesus’s prayers in Gethsemane. Although Nikki may not be in agony as the about-to-be-crucified Jesus was, Nikki’s introspective tone — which is at first sullen, then self-righteous, and finally, resigned — suggests she’s been carrying a burden. And no one can be burdened by that or with whom she is not in relationship.

For whatever reason Nikki purchased the house both her parents “had to live in,” undoubtedly love operated in her decision to house and nurture both her parents with a spirit representing God’s immanence and transcendence. Nikki’s shifting tone and her five “maybes” in these last stanzas speak to Thurman’s notion that “whatever is inexplicable has been attributed to God’s mystery … [and] participation in God’s mystery results in coming to know God as a caring personality” (87). When people know God so intimately, argues Thurman, they desire to share that love with others, thus becoming an “instrument of that love” (88). And when love is given, it, too, is received. “What else / Really matters,” (ll. 44-45) asks Nikki in a question that is not a question at all.   

With all of that said, and much left unsaid, I am quite convinced: In Jesus-like fashion, Nikki Giovanni has traveled here to be our right (or write) hand of fellowship, moving inside love and living from its center, so Black Americans may know themselves as they authentically are — so that, we, too, may know God as Nikki knows — and are brazen enuf to pass that mother-love on to others. And that is worth a good cry.  

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folks, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, pp. 7-15.

—. “Baby West.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 4-7.

—. “Chasing Utopia.” Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, William Morrow, 2013, pp. 1-3.

—. “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why).” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, pp. 125-126.

—. “Gemini—A Prolonged Autobiographical Statement on Why.” Gemini: An Extended

Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty Years of Being a Black Poet, Penguin Group, 1971, pp. 133-149.

—. A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017.

—. “A Haiku for Mars.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, p. 17.

—. “A Higher Level of Poetry.” Acolytes, William Morrow, 2007, p. 103.

—. “I Married My Mother.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 60-61.

—. “Morning Breakfast Routines.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 73-74.

—. “Nikki-Rosa.” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, p 53.

—. “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and  Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 75-76.

—. “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).” Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems  and Not Quite Poems, Harper Perennial, 2011, pp. 1-4.

—. “Space: Our Frontier.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 9-11.

Smith, Luther E. “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning, vol. 11, no. 2, June 1988, https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/uram.11.2.85.

Spirit Filled Life Bible for Students: Learning and Living God’s Word by the Power of His Spirit. Edited by Jack W. Hayford, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

[1] Reference to Philip José Farmer’s 1979 science fiction novel, Jesus on Mars (Pinnacle Books)

[2] Line 2 of Giovanni’s “A Haiku for Mars” from A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, 2017, p. 17

[3] Reference to Giovanni’s “Chasing Utopia” essay from Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, 2013, pp. 1-3

[4] Line 30 of Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa” poem, first collected in Black Judgement (Broadside Lotus Press, 1968), quoted here from The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), p. 53

[5] Title of Giovanni’s 1970 collection

[6] During one of her lectures I attended at Florida State University circa 2000, Giovanni discussed the “alien nature” of Africans who survived the Middle Passage and re-created themselves in a New World that endeavored to dehumanize them. She was making her claim for why Blacks are well-suited for space travel, noting they “remained humane under inhumane conditions,” and therefore, could guarantee NASA they’d return to Earth as the spirited human beings they are.

[7] Phrase from line 2 of Giovanni’s prose piece, “A Higher Level of Poetry,” from Acolytes (William Morrow, 2007), p. 103

[8] Final line in Giovanni’s “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars),” from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems (William Morrow, 2002), pp. 1-4

[9] Reference to Giovanni’s poem with same title from A Good Cry, 2017, pp. 73-74.

[10] Often quoted phrase coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest

[11] “Mother-love” is not limited to mothers who give birth. “Mother-love” can occur in relationships where a person (teacher, aunt, mentor, friend) acts as a nourishing source for another who needs such care. A “mother-love” relationship is a relationship of care. 

[12] Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an African-American theologian, philosopher, and social activist whose ideas about religion and community informed civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.

[13] In Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple, character Shug Avery teaches the dispirited Celie that God is All. She relies on nature to make her point, telling Celie, “I believe God is everything … trees … air … birds … other people” (167).

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Kendra N. Bryant NCAT HeadshotKendra N. Bryant is assistant professor of English and composition director at North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro. A graduate of Florida A&M University (Tallahassee) and University of South Florida (Tampa), Kendra has an M.Ed. in English Education and a Ph.D. in English Rhetoric & Composition. In addition to almost 20 years of classroom teaching, she has published poems and essays along with scholarly articles in works such as The Inside Light: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (2010); The Journal of Basic Writing (2013); Studies in Popular Culture (2015); and Multiculturalism in Higher Education (2020). She is currently working on a poetry manuscript and actively blogs at her website: drknbryant.com.  

 

 

By Allia Abdullah-Matta, PhD

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As if one could ever forget the image of a visibly Black woman poised on a brown and white pinto horse in the center of a city street. Tinted dreadlocks under her black fedora/top-hat blend, long feather earring, decorative knee-high boots, long-strands of pearls around her neck, a bow in hand adorned with an Indigenous dream catcher, feathers blowing in the wind: She is jessica Care moore. She is “from an army of glowing yellow / black princesses / some of us indigenous, even if the full blood family don’t claim us” (We Want Our Bodies Back 57-62); this poet, activist, publisher, educator, performer, and mother describes her presence in the womb as “the fire in her mother’s belly” who became “just a little brown girl / in pigtails and poems.” I would know moore and her poems anywhere — on the Showtime at the Apollo and Def Poetry Jam stages, strolling in the lobby of a conference hotel with her son King — especially the way her spoken word resonates in my ears and on the page. moore has trained a generation of witnesses and poets. She started Moore Black Press in 1997, which published four of her poetry collections, The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth (1997), The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto (2003), God is Not an American (2008), and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes (2014); and recorded an album, Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James (Javotti Media, 2015). Her fifth collection, We Want Our Bodies Back (Amistad, 2020), begins as an homage to Sandra Annette Bland (1987-2015) and serves as an important cultural, historical, and poetic reckoning in which moore reminds us about the urgency of reclaiming Black bodies. She characterizes the text as an active “call to action, [and] to prayer, for women who’ve lost family members, our children, and even our own lives to unjustified police violence and profiling” (Meridians 2018). moore dedicates the collection to Bland and Ntozake Shange, and throughout the body of the text she constructs a tableau of some of the most important Black poets and musicians in African American letters and cultural production. We Want Our Bodies Back is moore’s cultural and poetic love song to her people, and she implores us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to fight to breathe.

moore discusses her bodily experiences, how she felt as a curious girlchild who knew things and “was allowed to be a girl” (“Introduction” xv) and she sounds an alarm about how early our bodies are threatened. She addresses that Black women’s bodies “can be in danger in public spaces, let alone private ones,” notes the ways in which Black women artists such as herself and Betty Davis (1970s funk icon) experience “erasure from the male dominated entertainment industry,” and states her intention to combat this erasure by reclaiming and creating “a safe space to speak about the sexism and silencing of Black women’s voices in the arts” (xix) through Black WOMEN Rock! Further, moore indicates her artistic, political, and poetic intentions to situate the experiences of girls’ and women’s bodies by posing questions that she answers throughout the text — “when you decide to give your body to someone, what exactly do you receive in exchange? If we, in fact, do ‘choose’ to ‘give up our bodies,’ when do we get to have our bodies back?” (xviii)

We Want Our Bodies Back calls us to stand at attention; moore frames the collection with the spirit of “artist, musical storyteller, and griot” Nina Simone (1933-2003). The four section titles echo Simone’s song titles: “Wild Is the Wind,” “I Put a Spell On You,” “I Got Life,” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Thus, moore places readers under a concrete and symbolic spell marked by ancestry, history, language, memory, music, poetics, voice, and witness. moore takes readers on a journey of existence and subjugation, and she makes Black folks remember the power and significance of our breath and the word.

The poem “She Was.” in the “Wild Is the Wind” section takes up issues of history, language, and voice. The speaker begins with the politics of language for African Americans in the west:

I have convinced myself
I speak french
Somehow I will find a way to make
a Perfect sound

An: un/english

I don’t know
What else to do
With this language cept
Murder it. (9)

moore does several things in this poem: She points to historical and contemporary violence against Black people and their culture, language, and bodies. She plays with the so-called conventions of language as well as poetic form and space on the page; her choice to capitalize some words in the beginning and others in middle of lines, and to make proper nouns (“french” and “english”) lowercase, indicates her intention to create and enforce new language rules (“An: un/english”). The speaker can only “murder” the language, “Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates” (10), which emphasizes the linguistic and bodily trauma of Black people:

Choke the breath out of this alphabet
I need more than 26 letters to articulate
How I survived you.
How we survived
calculated attempts to blow
the heads                                 off our sons (lines 11-16)

She illustrates that experience(s) are “marked” by language and “unmarked” by her poetics of meaning and her attention to form. Her clever uses of capitalization, punctuation, line/stanza spacing are clearly at odds with the language itself. She collapses short phrases into one line (“Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates”), and places one-liner single stanzas throughout: “An: un/English,” “I prefer a sober hallucination” (31); “the editors are resisting my twist in plot” (43); and “is this a poem or a romance?” (46).

moore’s speaker refers to numerous attempts to kill the sons of her people and reminds readers that these poems are narratives of survival. Throughout the collection, moore refers to the horrific murders of Black bodies (Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner), all of which were public lynchings across the United States. It is important to note that moore wrote and performed the poem “We Want Our Bodies Back” as part of fundraising and activist work to support the family of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She was one of the few women speakers asked to perform, and it was her intention to situate Bland and to make sure that folks would say and remember her name. moore illustrates that Black women are on the front lines, and she uses and relates her own physical and spiritual fatigue and trauma to others, as a result of “years of activism and the pain of black mothering in a time of war” (Meridians 230). Thus, her tone is unapologetic and her movement across the page in “She was.” skillfully scaffolds the past and the present. She contextualizes history and culture in the midst of our attempt to survive and love ourselves. Her stanzas are a mélange of an African past: “Veil full of cowrie shells”; “The Door of No Return”; a spiritual presence, “plastered afroed yemanja,” “she spoke French / senegalese dialect, “queen kuntas,” “Oya laughed”; layers of romantic love, “jessica is always in love / love is a distraction from love,” “our bodies/fell in love”; and ancestry in “she wears the same petals my grandmother wore,” “figure the ocean is our most authentic / photo album,” “we just know we Moors’ / conquered Spain” (9-17).

In the poem “I am not ready to die,” also in the “Wild Is the Wind” section, moore highlights how Black women are objectified and subjugated:

I wish these new girls would get the fuck
off their knees and transform
a room
With subtle power and grace (lines 8-11)

moore poses questions that challenge readers to think about the problematic messages that flood popular music and culture: “When did it become okay to die in this country / On our knees?” (lines 14-15). She contrasts the valueless messages that inspire folks to be on their knees and points to the importance of self-education to combat digital slavery:

I read books without screens
I have sex with men my age
                        whenever i feel like it.

I love my hair, my ass, my breasts.
I’m clear that my power is between my ears
Inside my chest.

Black girl magic doesn’t grow between our legs (37-43)

This is an important critique about how Black women should value their bodies and not follow “the mythology of men” (line 44). The speaker’s reference to loving the natural contours of her body (her hair, breasts, and ass) situates the contemporary narrative around women’s bodies and a culture that does not honor the nature of Black bodies. Here moore claps back at a culture that pimps implants and unhealthy, problematic constructions of sexuality, and perpetuates women on their knees and on stripper poles. She asks, “how much / ?   to get you off your knees? / Sis?” (lines 45-47). This poem also grounds a revolutionary commentary that privileges the stream of self-awareness and change that runs through the collection:

Imma keep living inside poems
you didn’t know were left

for you

If you would just get off the got-damn
FLOOR you could see. (lines 59-63)

moore admonishes women to get off of their knees and to stand up as Queens. She gestures to a list of women singers and hip-hop artists, “microphones are not stripper poles” (line 83). She follows the philosophy and action of foremother poet Sonia Sanchez. In “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values,” Sanchez states, “the poet then, even though she speaks plainly, is a manipulator of symbols and language-images which have been planted by experience in the collective subconscious of a people. Through this manipulation, she creates new or intensified meaning and experience whether to the benefit or detriment of her audience” (20). moore manipulates symbols and language throughout this collection and illustrates that her work is a call to action and to consciousness.

The section I Put a Spell on You further establishes moore as a cultural historian and poet who passes down memory, music, poetics, and voice. “Because if I don’t write” is a Black girl’s treatise that holds her living memory, experience(s), and voice. moore references Shange and Angelou and her own act of writing and leaving Black girls “a trail of tears” as witnessed by the documentation of their lives, and what they need to know to preserve memory and their souls:

Because if i don’t write
You will write for me
tell historians black girls were
crazy
invisible
lost in time
Wishing to turn our bodies inside out
Become unrecognizable to our own mothers
Desecrate our faces
Because we hated our own
mirrors. (lines 27-37)

moore points to a potential failure of collective consciousness and existence if Black girl identity is not passed down by the foremothers, such as the many Black women artists moore names throughout this collection. Who will write to tell the truth of Black bodily experiences if not Black people? While moore’s collection refers to the desecration of the bodies and faces of Black men and women, “Because if I don’t write” emphasizes the need to mark the story of the Black girl, and allows others to say and know her name(s); this story solidifies moore’s writing as political act and intention, “I write to live / to prove to black girls everywhere / we are possible” (lines 55-57). The poem “on memory” in the “I Got Life” section further exemplifies the significance of memory, voice, and writing as a political act; moore’s use of questions is particularly powerful in this section and points to her skill at experimental poetics:

1.
Why do you write about the
Right now

?

The right now                         needed me. (1-4)

The two poems “We Are Born Moving,” dedicated to moore’s city (Detroit) and her daddy (T. D. Moore), and “Where Are the People?” in this same section address forced migrations due to enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, racial terror, and class. These pieces continue moore’s work as cultural historian. She posits, “humanity is not just oil, it is blood” (59), moves through the complexities of her family’s migration from Madison, Alabama to Detroit, and documents the city’s economic and industrial shifts. Both poems indicate the migratory expansion of Black families and communities in urban spaces. moore’s stanzas in “Where Are the People,” constructed as lists, continue to pose questions:

Where are the people?
The stepped over, the forgotten holocaust
The Fragile, the beautiful, the fast talkers,
The backward walkers, the 3am stalkers
Where did they take them.
When will they return
Where is the balance
Where is the money
Where are the schools?
Where are the people?
We all got Wi-fi
nobody getting high outside (lines 27-38)

moore takes readers from the past to the present of digital slavery and expects them to acknowledge what has occurred and what continues to happen to Black folks. The poet as witness asks that the community process its current semi-fugue state. Where are the people after the crises and decay of urban communities as a result of politics, poverty, drug addiction, and violence? “Who signed the death certificates / Where are the magicians, the madmen, the toothless, the smoothest, the poets” (lines 2-3), and “the traffic stoppers;” “Under which pile of gravel / Where are they buried” (lines 10-11).

We Want Our Bodies Back allows us to retrieve our bodies. moore situates poetry as the ultimate witness and illustrates that art is the vehicle to tell the stories of women. She is a “poet worth her weight in syllables” who presents a clear understanding of what is going on in our world; moore helps us “to make sense of our bodies burnt by cigarettes, and smoked out of our neighborhoods” (Medina 21). She “construct[s] a survival guide, a poem / for our daughters’ bodies” and a hauntingly beautiful blues/love song to her people, to help us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to continue to fight to breathe:

If black women could
Be cut down. No.
Removed, gently,
              from American terrorism/
Who would break our fall?
Which direction would we travel
 To feel safe?

wild is the wind

***

We want our bodies back

              We want our bodies back

                                          We want our bodies back!

 

Works Cited

Medina, Tony. “Meditations on Moore: One.” The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth. Moore Black Press, 1997, pp. 12-14.

moore, jessica Care. We Want Our Bodies Back. Amistad, 2020.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 16, no. 2, 2018: pp. 230-237.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. M Stamps School Art & Design, University of Michigan, Fall 2017.

Sanchez, Sonia. “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values.” The Black Scholar, vol. 16, no. 1, January/February 1985, pp. 20-22, 24-25, 27-28.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


AAM Pic
Allia Abdullah-Matta is a poet and teacher-scholar who uses creativity and artistic expression as instruments of social justice activism and transformation.  She is an Associate Professor at CUNY LaGuardia, where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. She was the co-recipient of the The Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize in Poetry (2018) from The City College of New York (CCNY). Her poetry has been published in Newtown Literary, Promethean, Marsh Hawk ReviewMom Egg Review VoxGlobal City Review, and the Jam Journal Issue of Push/Pull.

 

 

 

 

 

by Tsitsi Jaji, PhD

&

Matthew Shenoda’s voice is dangerous, mystical, moving. Sonia Sanchez’s introduction ushered readers into his first collection, Somewhere Else (Coffee House Press, 2005), auguring how his work thrusts us to the threshold of images never encountered before. She spoke, anaphoric and euphoric:

I say, who is this poet who sings down the lids of deserts with color?
I say, I say, who is this poet always punctual with his eyes, his heart his hands?
I say I say, I say, who is this poet who mixes poetry and philosophy, who leads us into “the skulls of the ancients” residing in the Eastern Sahara: “Each sphere of bone / a voice // A cage / of warrior mind.”

            What does “Coptic” taste like? (xi)

Let us take Sanchez’s questions as our guide. As she says, Shenoda’s work sings in the mystic and material idioms of the desert, never shying away from the stark sightings one catches of his native Egypt and its wanderings both internal and in diaspora. Let us read his work together and carry the question — What does “Coptic” taste like? — to its lyrical conclusions.

Begin here: Shenoda’s parents are Egyptian Copts, members of the most widespread Christian denomination in North Africa, inheritors of the traditions of the Desert Fathers and, also by tradition, adherents to a faith first founded by the apostle Mark a few years after the death of Christ. Those origins are the vast landscapes Shenoda’s language traverses, and they map the trajectory of African diasporas often overlooked. His body carries across ancient ruins, isolated villages, crowded Cairo streets, an L.A. highway. His work speaks to an imagined all-America and a pan-Arab audience. Begin here.

This first collection starts with an epigraph, a Zulu proverb from the other end of the continent:

A word uttered
cannot be taken
back (x)

The route from South Africa to Egypt was infamously charted by Cecil John Rhodes and his lewd imperial ambition, a column of British power stretching from Cape to Cairo. Shenoda prefigures the #RhodesMustFall movement among South African students, who in 2015 tore down a statue on University of Cape Town’s campus. Toppling the monument of Rhodes’s brass knuckles pointing northward to Africa’s northern coast, they inaugurated a fiery debate about the future of decolonial education. In Shenoda’s Egypt as in the Fallists’ South Africa, art declares: The people, united, will never be defeated. Shenoda’s poetry, speaking with a gravity born of elemental word choices and direct grammar, travels across geographies of liberation precisely because its words reveal truths, which, once unhidden, haunt the reader with new responsibility.

These first poems apprehend bodily pain in all its rawness and translate its circumstances in vivid language: The sparseness of his diction and clear, calm descriptions turn readers into witnesses to the agonies of surviving history. But the past does not own Shenoda’s voice, which also renders the difficult truth that the beauty of coming fully alive costs dearly. Read these poems out loud and you will try, maybe, to back out of what you have just repeated, lines so sharply beautiful that their truth verges on a curse:

Great-Grandmother used to say,
“If you throw salt away
God will make you
pick it up
one grain at a time
with your eyelashes” (3)

Shenoda’s vision stings.

Much of the work seeks out the poor, the sacred and the ecological; worlds too quickly squelched in the rush of contemporary cosmopolitan living. The writerly technique of entangled first- and third-person voices attend to the ignored details of a worker’s body, the “kneecap of a man whose only hope was grounding toil / Scrubbing my skin with the earth for food” (23). Elsewhere the desert is home to other ignored voices, here silenced by Christendom’s erasures of its African roots, as “two thousand years of chants and prayers / seclude themselves in the eastern desert” (6). The poetry’s revelations do not come cheap. These are “songs to sing when sorrow / has taken flight in us” (21), poems that wander through crowded streets and forgotten villages where the poet’s most important work is witness. He shows us the glint of a gold chain suspending a Coptic cross snatched from a woman’s neck “Standing on the Corner” in Cairo (3). He makes us watch as Los Angeles police savage black and brown people with billy clubs “on the bilingual highway / where color means a beating / if your taillight flashes / anything other / than English” (49). And he does not look away from a man whose “enemy stripped him of his clothes / and dipped his nude body in tar, [then compounded cruelty, capturing] a buffalo — and with her tail, tied the man to her haunches, / beat her and watched / the abused parade the town square” (8). Shenoda unriddles nothing; instead, his poems work at the nub of human experience, delicate and deadly.

Shenoda instructs us by example, invocation, and manifesto as to what language must do in a world unsurvivable unless it changes:

We speak forgiveness
like giraffe tongues
long & ready to unravel

We speak ancestor codes of
handshake body language
& “brother I got your back” (68–9)

The past unravels our future in the intimate touch between bodies, living and remembered, human and animal, rural and street.

The second collection, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone (BOA Editions Ltd., 2009), leans more heavily into the parabolic language of a sage. I quote the full text of its first riddle, “Schism,” to linger over the sphinxlike elegance of this beginning in pause and puzzle, taking time:

One man dreams
Of fire
But cannot strike
Two sticks 

Together

One man strikes
Two sticks
But cannot dream
Of fire (13)

The collection’s title and this first poem alert us to the work Shenoda expects of his readers: where the first collection’s title called upon our geographic imagination, in Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, if we are to grapple with the mystical, the movement, the malleable idioms of these Seasons, our imaginations must give time to his poems. What will that look like, a double dreaming of time as flowering lotus and dessicated bone? We can look for the ways he adopts multiple indigenous time zones, ways of understanding history in Egypt’s Arab and Coptic present, its African cycles of fertility, its ancient pictograms. These poems walk us through the palimpsests of modern Cairo and decipher this city’s construction by stacked generations: “Ingenuity is the notion of building / On a foundation made from loss” (14). His African animism says, “Lord, my roots sprout three trunks. // Lord, I am a rock made of wheat” (18).” Nature reminds us how to read hieroglyphics, a script that, “like sky / contains no end” (21), its image-writing clearest in a grandmother’s sun-warts, or the pale blue rings around an uncle’s clouding pupils. In the collection’s title we have the promise of a passing: We are only in this poem-world for a season, maybe two. And that passing, an inner exile of sorts, makes the way we carry memory, and translate it, all the more mysterious.

Shenoda’s parabolic imagination often syncs time with the arrivals and departures of Egypt’s ecologies, as he does “In the Season of Paremhat,” a poem named after the Nile’s leavings that fertilize a nation’s seeds, cross-pollinating counter/intuition:

Our hands fork silt
To make music

Music is the way we forget to talk
We say, music is the way we forget to talk (30)

Working with our hands is holy work, silt to sustain, silt’s pour is silt’s song, and song its own Mesmer. Always, in these seasons, there is the sense of a time to come that shows first through the weft of poetic text. What gorgeous mysteries will come in continuance? What deciphering will we do, running light fingers over code “tightly woven in the curls of her hair / the rosetta stone of tomorrow.” What rough tenderness will we learn as we watch how a mother “thrusts to the knee // cracks the cane / disseminates sweetness / fibrous light in their mouths”? (59–60) These lines show us the world is vital text in plain view but only if we pay attention, read and reread surfaces caught in a glance. The particular rhythm of these quick-takes emerges in deceptively spare distillations, spelling out sense that holds together lightly, like the gesturing hands of devout men in conversation, like a stone tablet relaying across languages.

Shenoda’s most recent collection, Tahrir Suite (Triquarterly, 2014), seems less riddle than epic, but in this book-length chronicle of two personae migrating from their home in Egypt to a global north as unmapped as it is unknowable, their odyssey is punctuated only by questions. Tekla and Isis’s lives at the margins emerge in text alternately justified right and left, and what lyric poetry can do, leaving the center, the narrative thread unspecified, turns their journey into a modern migration fable of sorts. The specificity of this story is exquisite, just as its mysticism is insistent. Glossing the title, Shenoda writes Tahrir (literally “liberation” in Arabic) is the square in downtown Cairo where Egyptians overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after his 30 years in power, but also, two years later, deposed elected president Mohamed Morsi, giving way to military rule and “some of the bloodiest and most divisive [months] in modern Egyptian history” (75).

Shenoda’s eye for gesture as a dense archive of story draws readers into Isis’s inner landscape of desire and drudgery. We do not look into her face so much as through it, a mask and a shield, yes, but also the only home she will never leave. Much of her narrative is spent in waiting, drawing to the surface the way time is gendered and how what appears an impulsive action emerges from hours of solitary reflection. Applying iconic eyeliner becomes a secret operation of resolve:

She fought herself to feel for something more
Prayed the ash of resistance into kohl
And painted her eyes to see (15)

Entering the theater of intimate relationships becomes the work of a silent, ambiguous sisterhood:

She borrowed a face from the woman next door
And descended the steps (17)

And, with Shenoda’s particular attention to the humble, the mystical, the ecological, Isis reads antique messages etched into what might be a splinter, or a fossil — messages we sense her taking time to decipher, bent over in a limitless solitude:

She reached beneath her feet to pull a chunk of wood
Shaped like a human heart
She traced the spiral pattern that the insects bore
And closed her eyes for silence (20)

Isis and Tekla’s journey is, of course, urgent, which is why the stretches of time spent in wait feel so taught. The weight of fear presses upon them, making choice an abstraction in the shadow of political and sectarian violence:

In the hail of lead
We were made to understand our veins
Forget the vestiture of desire
Cloak ourselves in an impeding life (47)

To live in diaspora we flee carrying nothing but our own history in our mouths. This is the truth of a Caribbean raconteur’s call, Crick! and our response, Crack! And this is the truth that holds Tekla and Isis together, living off of the story of themselves. But they know, too, that narration becomes fiction, sometimes willful, sometimes forced.

If splendid were a tale you tell
You’d praise the past as if it hadn’t pierced
You’d gather your new neighbors
And perjure all the night (53)

The lies we tell ourselves to keep going are ours nonetheless:

After years of building something new
Conviction vanished
Anywhere was here
Definition a fabrication in the story (57)

Shenoda’s poetic idiom is no fabrication; in each of his books his language carries the weight of truth, a lyrical fabric of recurring words, memory, struggle. We hear his voice speaking through persona: “My voice is my only spear,” says a wandering immigrant far from home (60). My voice is my only spear, I think, regretful as I close the book. My voice is my only spear, I remember, hearing in my inner ear the deliberate, bass echo of Shenoda at a podium. My voice is my only spear, and I do not know if I need a shield. My voice is my only spear, and I cannot fight alone. Neither can you. The fight, and the fiddle, is us. Read Shenoda with me.

Works Cited

Shenoda, Matthew. Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone. Rochester, BOA Editions Ltd., 2009.

—. Somewhere Else. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 2005.

—. Tahrir Suite. Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2014.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


tsitsi-jaji
Tsitsi Jaji is the author of two poetry collections, Mother Tongues (2019, winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern UP Award), and Beating the Graves (2017, African Poetry Book Series), as well as a chapbook, Carnaval (2014) in Seven New Generation African Poets. She is an associate professor at Duke University, and author of a monograph, Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity (2014). Raised in Zimbabwe, she considers herself an African poet and an African American scholar.

 

 

By McKinley Melton, PhD

&After years of engaging with Dominique Christina’s poetry in the classroom, watching students be awed by her writing as well as her extraordinary delivery, I finally had the opportunity to bear witness to her live performance when I invited her to the Gettysburg campus as part of a spoken word poetry series. Christina’s visit was, in a word, electric. My students were nearly overwhelmed by her presence, with one of them writing in their reflection that “the room could have sparked and torn with the energy she channeled, with the spirits she called.” Enhancing the power of Christina’s presence was the fortuitous coincidence that we scheduled her visit for Tuesday, November 8, 2016. With the presidential election as a backdrop, the richness and complexity of Christina’s work shone through. Her poetry, emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities, foregrounds themes of speech and silence while challenging shame as an impediment to survival. Moreover, the insistence that we engage with the historical breadth and the contemporary consequence of her work powerfully mirrored the challenge with which we would all be faced — how to stand up and speak out against a reality that we had not dared to imagine yet history tells us was always possible.

During her visit, one piece that resonated significantly was “The Period Poem” from her 2015 collection, They Are All Me.[i] Christina framed the poem by inviting the audience to interrogate the biblical narrative of Eve and the Garden of Eden in order to confront the idea of menstruation as a consequence for woman’s original sin. Working to undermine the continual shame that women and young girls are made to feel about the natural biological process, Christina crafts the poem as an open letter.  First, she addresses a “nameless dummy on Twitter” who had proudly claimed to have broken up with his girlfriend because her period commenced in the midst of sexual intercourse (112). She challenges his “disdain / For what a woman’s body can do” and offers him “an anatomy lesson infused with feminist politics / because I hate you” (112).  Explaining the anatomical reality of a uterus shedding itself “every 28 days or so,” Christina asserts that “the Feminist politic part is that women / Know how to let things go” and “how to become new, / How to regenerate” (113). Significantly, Christina posits a woman’s body as a space for both renewal as well as creation, noting that menstruation not only facilitates the creation of another person but also a revitalization of the self.

Indeed, rather than suggesting reproduction as the primary significance of a woman’s period, Christina first argues for a multiplicity of functions. In addition to the renewal of self, she also reflects on the communal force of menstruation, such that “women have vaginas that can speak to each other” and “our menstrual cycles will actually sync the fuck up” (113). Only after addressing these other implications of menstruation does Christina remind the Twitter dummy,

          But when your mother carried you,
          The ocean in her belly is what made you buoyant,
          Made you possible.
          You had it under your tongue when you burst through her skin (113)

Establishing the mother’s body as the creative origin for this man’s existence, Christina directly links the maternal act of creation with his capacity for speech, literally undergirding his tongue. Suggesting that his language, now used to malign women’s bodies, would be impossible without the nurturing space of his mother’s womb, Christina writes,

            THAT body wrapped you in everything
            That was miraculous about it and sang you
            Lullabies laced in platelets
            Without which you wouldn’t have a twitter account
            At all, motherfucker. (113)

The condemnation that Christina delivered, fueled by righteous indignation and armed with biological facts, was soon paired with the wish that he would be “blessed with daughters.” Noting that “Etymologically ‘Bless’ means: to make bleed,” Christina offers the “lesson in linguistics” in order that the dummy on Twitter might know, “in other words blood speaks” (115). Acknowledging that “blood speaks” in the face of this man’s careless use of speech on Twitter, she charges him to take on the role of listener, that he might eventually learn. The lesson, Christina continues, moves beyond etymology, as she suggests that “Your daughters will teach you / What all men must one day come to know” (115). That inevitable lesson, of how to handle “the blood” for which few are ever fully prepared, pairs the challenge of the poem with its promise for this man, for whom knowledge might dismantle the ignorance-fueled impulse for his tweet.

Lest the poem be directed entirely to this man, Christina shifts focus to her own daughter, who is the second and more important audience for this epistolary poem.  Having ably dispatched with the “nameless dummy,” she deliberately dedicates the final words of the poem to her daughter in order to arm her, “should any fool mishandle / the wild geography of your body” (115). She charges her daughter to “just BLEED” and “Give that blood a Biblical name, / Something of stone and mortar” (115-116). Echoing her initial challenge to the biblical narrative of the first woman’s invitation of sin into the world, Christina suggests that her daughter “name it after Eve’s first rebellion in that garden,” thereby revising the narrative that would call Eve’s action a sin and simultaneously refuting the supposed divine directive that man alone be given the patriarchal power to name (116). Seizing upon naming as right and privilege, she argues that her daughter name the blood “for all the women who’ll not be nameless here” — in parallel to her decrying the “nameless dummy on Twitter” — and offers a maternal directive to exercise that right:

            Name the blood something holy.
            Something mighty.
            Something un-languageable.
            Something in hieroglyphs.
            Something that sounds like the end of the world.  (116)

Empowering her daughter to name the blood that flows from her body, regardless of what “good furniture” it destroys (116), Christina rests the poem with the language of ownership and empowerment. Ultimately, she centers her daughter in a narrative that challenges the shame she is originally made to feel though she has committed no sin.

Students universally acknowledged the poem as one of the most affecting of the night. The power of this performance — on the very evening that many in the audience believed a woman would be elected president over a man who had denigrated a journalist by saying that she had “blood coming out of her wherever”[ii] and brazenly celebrated his ability to force himself on women and “grab ‘em by the pussy”[iii] — was immeasurable. As another student wrote in her reflection: “How could I witness Dominique’s fire and brilliance and not feel proud to be a member of the same half of the species? I felt like I was nineteen years old, a woman was going to be Commander in Chief come January, and women like Dominique Christina existed — so how could progress not be within my generational grasp?” Within a few hours, the reality of the election’s result would sink in.

When next we met, the students arrived to the classroom still numb in the aftermath of the election. We were able to process the election results in the midst of our scheduled conversation on Black female spoken word poets, in a class session that had been titled “Sister Speak: A Vocal Black Womanhood.” The alignment of Christina’s visit, the course material, and the election produced one of the most potent classroom conversations I’ve had in my teaching career. When the students spoke of the role that women played in securing Trump’s electoral win, someone returned to “The Period Poem,” raising the idea that the poem itself addresses biological womanhood and the popular “disdain for what a woman’s body can do,” without explicitly mentioning race. Yet, with 53% of white women supporting Trump’s candidacy and Black women maintaining almost uniform opposition, the election results clarified that gender alone didn’t determine how the votes were cast. We discussed the implications of this inconvenient truth for our ongoing conversations regarding intersectional Black womanhood and the importance of Black women’s voices in poetry as well as politics. As one student astutely argued, Christina did not explicitly mention race in this poem, yet she intentionally foregrounded her racial identity and that of her daughter. Through Christina’s choice to put her own body front and center, as a poet for whom performance held such tremendous meaning, there was no way to ignore or even to de-center race in our consideration of the poet or of her work. As one student argued, with whom I’m inclined to agree, “I think she’d be pissed if we even tried.”

I thought often of Christina’s visit to our campus, and the ensuing conversation in our classroom, while reading her most recent book of poetry, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems.[iv] The National Poetry Series–winning collection endeavors to give voice to the titular enslaved woman who, while being denied pain-reducing anesthesia in addition to the right to consent, underwent multiple surgeries and procedures in forced service to the curiosities and career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a man who would one day be hailed as “the father of modern gynecology.” This collection expands upon the conversations engendered by “The Period Poem” and Christina’s articulation of an intergenerational dialogue about women’s bodies, as well as the incoherency between the power of what those bodies can do and the disregard in which they are held. Anarcha Speaks, undoubtedly, also explores the particular and specific circumstances of intersecting race and gender, pivoting as it does around an enslaved woman whose condition is defined by her Blackness as well as her womanhood, even as the inhumane treatment to which she is subjected threatens to deny any sense of personhood to which she might lay claim.

Christina’s examination of the manner by which Black womanhood is reduced to the biological mechanics of reproduction clearly connects Anarcha and “The Period Poem.” Yet what makes Anarcha such a powerfully complex and layered work, like “The Period Poem” before it, is Christina’s ability to give voice to the silenced — whether an enslaved woman or “the blood” that must speak — and to enable the now voiced to speak, from an empowered and authoritative position, within an intergenerational conversation that carries the force of history in its articulation of themes that remain significant in the current moment. Christina’s work persists in the effort to center Black women, their voices and their experiences, within the historical record. Subsequently, she challenges a history wherein the silencing of Black women enables the myths that would, without any sense of irony, herald a man as the “father” of gynecological practice while negating the contributions of women, or propel a self-confessed “pussy-grabber” to the presidency with the support of a majority of white women’s votes.

Christina addresses the historical connection that drives her work in the dedication for Anarcha Speaks, acknowledging the ways that women like Anarcha operate as ancestors that prefigure her own Black womanhood.  She writes,

I am still reeling from the possessive nature of ancestral writing.  I am still humbled by elegy and the potential it holds to re-flesh the bones. I still tremble under the weight of history. The ships that carried folk I borrow bone and blood from to places they never imagined, where their suffering was bottomless. It is quite something to know they sizzle up through us and announce themselves still. Memory is aggressive. And long. And sometimes inherited. I elect to chase it down whenever possible. I intend to participate in as many resurrections as I can. (93)

Acknowledging the “possessive nature of ancestral writing” in her dedication, Christina recognizes that she must elect to chase memory down as she announces her intent to participate in as many resurrections as she can. She thereby foregrounds her own artistic agency in making the decision to center Anarcha while simultaneously reminding readers that the silencing of this enslaved woman’s voice was also a choice, a deliberate act. Just as Anarcha’s muting had explicit and intended consequences, so too does the decision to return her to a position of prominence. With Anarcha as both the central subject and the narrator for this collection, these poems participate in the ongoing project of challenging the marginalization of Black women within the historical record, extending all the way back to the ancestral figure of Eve.

In her efforts to “re-flesh the bones” of her foremother, Christina intentionally centers the voice of Anarcha herself, as indicated not only by the collection’s title, but also established in its tone-setting opening poem, “Anarcha Will Speak and It Will Be So.” The poem begins with the traumatic assault on Anarcha’s body:

          massa come in like he know i cain’t cry
          new tears

          he take what he want
          he keep a hot hand  (3)            

Though the violation of Anarcha’s body and personhood is the central act of these opening lines, Christina provides her reader with much more than an incident that would render “massa” as the active subject and Anarcha as the passive recipient of sexual violence. The slave master’s approach, from the outset, is shown to be rooted in his fictitious belief, rather than the fact of Anarcha’s existence. Christina outlines the way he moves “like he know,” which immediately alerts readers to the fact that he does not. The suggestion that this is a moment for the production of “new tears” also indicates that there were previous tears, establishing an emotional depth to Anarcha that predates this violent act. Anarcha, as a subject, does not begin with this violence, but exists in the fullness of her own humanity prior to massa’s entrance into the narrative. This is, in itself, a radical statement, as Christina works against a historical narrative that reduces Black women to tools of production, whose entrance into the historical record often comes with the documentation of purchase, or of birth, that indicates an increase to a master’s property more than it does the announcement of a human being into historical reality.

The next lines of the poem introduce readers to the ultimate violence that is enacted upon Anarcha through a process designed to both silence her and deny her any sense of agency or right to her own identity:

          every new hatred
          cinch my throat closed.

          he take me

          give me a name made outta iron
          he say it till i ain’t myself      (3)

The closing of Anarcha’s throat is enacted in response to an ambiguous hatred. One reading might suggest that the massa’s hatred for Anarcha, exercised through the violence that he inflicts on her is what cinches her throat closed. An alternate reading, however, suggests that Anarcha’s silence is an act of self-control, quieting any potential outburst of her hatred for the massa, the articulation of which would surely threaten her ability to survive in the aftermath of these acts. Regardless, the massa’s acts, and his display of power over her body, result in a closed throat. Her silenced state leaves the massa as the only speaking figure within the poem, enabling him to give Anarcha a name and to be the lone voice speaking it aloud. Significantly, however, this poem remains framed by its title and the narrative voice that reminds readers that this is Anarcha’s story to tell, and that she remains the speaker of the poem, even as she remains ostensibly silenced within it. The poem’s title functions as a succinct declaration, wherein the poet’s intentions for the collection are made clear by a definitive statement that leaves no room for ambiguity. Anarcha will speak and it will be so. This poem, and those that follow, collectively providing the willfully neglected history of the subjugation of Anarcha’s body, will turn on the power of Anarcha’s voice. The declarative “and it will be so” operates with absolute authority, prophetically establishing the path forward even while the collection offers a corrective lens onto the past.

Christina’s exploration of Black women’s subjectivities, throughout Anarcha as well as works published and performed prior to the release of this collection such as “The Period Poem,” is often framed through examinations of maternity. Yet, even as she remains invested in the consideration of Black women as ancestral figures, Christina avoids reducing Black women solely to the function of motherhood. Rather, she argues that their full lives must be excavated in order for her audience to thoughtfully reckon with the historical and contemporary place of Black women. Anarcha’s ability to exist as more than a body that experiences motherhood as a result of sexual assault, only to have that body violated again through painful medical exploration in the wake of giving birth, is examined throughout the collection. Christina exposes readers to Anarcha’s reflections on life in her master’s house, allowing her to bear witness to the treatment of other enslaved people including those recently purchased (“They Bringin in More”), those who seek to escape (“She Got Further Than Anybody”), and others who experience the pain of giving birth to children who they know they cannot truly claim as their own (“Lucy Made a Girl”). Christina also provides the full arc of Anarcha’s pregnancy, from the moment she is made aware of her pregnancy (“Don’t Wanna Hear It But”) to her awareness of the fetus’ presence (“Anarcha Feels Movement”) to the delivery (“This Time It Hurts”). The fact that all of this happens before the introduction of Dr. Sims is, again, significant, reminding readers that this was a woman with a complete life—full of complex thoughts and emotions—long before the introduction of the man in whose shadow history would place her.

Herein lies the most significant part of Christina’s work, the practice of “re-fleshing the bones” that history has discarded as unimportant and without value. Christina’s work of poetic recovery is not only for the validation of Anarcha, but also for those who claim her as ancestor, to those who continue to labor against the prominent narrative that they, and the people from which they come, have no dimension to their lives worthy of adulation. Christina acknowledges the intergenerational benefit of recovering Anarcha’s life in its fullness with the poem “The Chil’ren Might Know.”  She opens the poem with Anarcha’s musings of when they “once was warriors” (15). After, again, establishing the idea of a fullness of Black life before the arrival of white figures, Christina then presents a narrative wherein Anarcha hopes “maybe / they know we ain’t always / been so lowly” and suggests that

          maybe they can look past 
          the bruises
          to see when we
          were bigger underneath      (15)

Christina concludes the poem with Anarcha’s assertion that:

           we had hands once
           and a river to bathe in

            and names
            full names
            that called us home.

            the chil’ren might know that
            if they lookin at us right

            we lost our mouths
            ‘cross a mighty ocean.
            coulda died but we don’t know how . . .  (15-16)

In these final lines, Christina makes clear the work in which she is engaging.  She recognizes the importance of names that were stolen from Anarcha and her community, as well as the home that was likewise taken, along with the river in which her people bathed.  Yet, as she focuses on that which is lost, she issues a challenge, arguing that the children might understand and know this history “if they lookin at us right.” Despite having lost their mouths and having their voices sacrificed to a historical silence, the poem’s conclusion that the enslaved “coulda died but we don’t know how . . .” renders their narrative one of survival and not solely of trauma, silence, weakness, and pain. 

By emphasizing and celebrating the survival of a people, Christina effectively challenges the shame to which they’ve been subjected. In “The Period Poem,” she celebrates “women, made of moonlight, magic, and macabre” (115). In Anarcha Speaks, she celebrates the voice of an enslaved woman who the historical record had reduced to a catalogue of body parts that was never meant to include her tongue. In challenging that sense of shame, and the historical record that enshrined it, Christina’s poetry is not only about the reclamation of ancestral voices, but also about enabling her audience to better understand the circumstances of their own lives.

Having seen, firsthand, what can happen when a room full of willing minds are given the opportunity to grapple with Christina’s work, my sincere hope is that many others will accept the poet’s invitation to engage with ideas, narratives, and complicated truths. This poet has produced a body of work that demands to be engaged, that will not allow audiences to sit quietly when confronted with the power of her words.  The electric energy that I and my students felt in our classroom pulses through this collection, just as it does whenever Christina puts pen to paper or steps in front of a microphone. Whether admonishing a man on Twitter to look to his future daughters to understand what he “must one day come to know” or inviting “the chil’ren” to respond to the call of an ancestral figure like Anarcha in order that they “might know” the truth of their history, Christina’s work invites us to re-frame, re-name, and reclaim the narratives that have been shaped by silences and to seek understanding through the voices that boldly insist on the right to speak.

They will speak. It will be so. We would all do well to listen closely.

[i] Christina, Dominique. “The Period Poem.” They Are All Me. Swimming With Elephants, 2015.

[ii] Rucker, Philip. “Trump says Megyn Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her wherever.’ The Washington Post, 8 August 2015.

[iii]Transcript: Donald Trump’s taped comments about women.” The New York Times, 8 October 2016.

[iv] Christina, Dominique. Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems. Beacon, 2018.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


McKinley MeltonMcKinley E. Melton, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, earned his doctorate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  With the support of an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, he is the 2019/20 Scholar-in-Residence at the Furious Flower Poetry Center. Dr. Melton’s work focuses on 20th and 21st Century Africana literatures, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literary, social, cultural, and political movements toward social justice.  His current project, “Claiming All the World as Our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance,” explores spoken word poetry as a distinct form within Africana literatures and examines the work of contemporary poets in relationship to Black diasporan traditions of orality and performance.